What is metabolomics, and how can it help prove the effectiveness of TCM?
09/10/2019 // Evangelyn Rodriguez // Views

Traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) have been proven by many studies to be effective and reliable treatments for various diseases. However, despite numerous discoveries about medicinal plants and their bioactive components, the mechanisms behind their therapeutic efficacy remain unexplored. Metabolomics is an emerging science that can provide the means to elucidate these mechanisms. This systemic approach focuses mainly on metabolites -- substances either produced during metabolism or to aid in metabolism -- particularly their quantification and identification at a specific point in time. In a review published in the journal Chinese Medicine, researchers from the Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine and Zhejiang Chinese Medical University relied on metabolomics data to investigate the effectiveness of TCM in treating viral pneumonia. They compiled and summarized recent metabolomics research on TCM to demonstrate that this method can be used to prove the efficacy of natural plant-based treatments.

Metabolomics and what it does

Metabolomics is a useful method that allows researchers to quantify an organism's metabolic response to pathological and physiological stimuli, as well as genetic modifications. When a living system is affected by external influences, such as microbes or environmental stressors that cause diseases or injuries, it adapts immediately by triggering organic processes. These processes occur at the cellular level and are collectively called metabolism. Physiological responses that involve metabolism entail the production of various target-specific chemicals. For instance, plant tissues are known to produce compounds called phytoalexins in response to parasites. Phytoalexins protect plants by inhibiting the growth of these invaders.


Metabolomics involves the application of different analytical tools, such as fingerprinting, profiling, and flux analysis. The functionality of these tools makes them suitable for identifying the active components of plants and their biological activities. Fingerprinting can be used to characterize different plant metabolites, while profiling allows the quantification of these substances. Flux analysis, on the other hand, can be used to trace the biochemical fate of individual metabolites, meaning it can elucidate their interactions with other chemicals. Some of the technologies often used to facilitate these analyses are mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), gas chromatography, and liquid chromatography.

Metabolomics can be used to prove the effectiveness of TCM

In their review, Chinese researchers summarized recent studies that involved metabolomics in search of evidence of the reliability and effectiveness of TCM in treating viral pneumonia. They believe that metabolomics, as a systemic approach, can provide ample opportunity to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the effects of various TCM, TCM syndromes, and their impact post-treatment. The researchers reported that the results of metabolomics analysis demonstrate a systemic metabolic shift in lipid, amino acids, and energy metabolism. However, current studies about the effects of TCM on viral pneumonia involve untargeted metabolomics.

In untargeted metabolomics, researchers compare the metabolome -- the total number of metabolites present in an organism, cell, or tissue -- of a given test group to an already well-studied control in order to identify differences between their metabolic profiles. This type of metabolomics is also called discovery metabolomics and offers a "global" view of a sample. While it allows researchers to identify new compounds, it is limited to only semi-quantitative methods and requires complex informatics to interpret the results.

In contrast, targeted metabolomics has a low detection limit, which makes it possible for researchers to do absolute quantification of their samples. However, unlike untargeted metabolomics, targeted metabolomics does not enable researchers to discover unknown compounds. (Related: Scientists unlock the anti-cancer potential of lianqiao, a well-known TCM herb.)

The Chinese researchers, therefore, concluded that further validations using targeted metabolomics should be carried out together with molecular biology technologies to prove the therapeutic effectiveness of TCM.

TCM can be used to treat a variety of illnesses. Visit ChineseMedicine.news to learn more.

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