Dr Daniel Mok: towards a scientific understanding of the efficacy of traditional chinese medicine

13 September 2017

Growing up, Dr Daniel Mok (Croucher Fellowship 1994) didn’t envision himself studying Chinese herbs. “When I was in secondary school, I did not have a good experience studying biology. There was a lot of memorisation of names and terms,” he said. “I was more interested in physics and chemistry. Although I wanted to be a scientist, at the time I never thought of working in an area like this. Initially I started as a computational chemist, doing calculations to understand the reactions in the atmosphere that leads to air pollution and global warming.”

Mok played to his strengths in quantitative analysis and trained as a chemist at the University of Hong Kong. He obtained his PhD in 1995 and went on to University of Cambridge to work as a postdoctoral fellow. Thereafter, he joined the staff of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, eventually becoming a faculty member. Nearly two decades since his doctorate studies, he finds himself at the interface of biology and chemistry. Mok and his team focus on the use of metabolomics to examine the changes of body metabolites and to understand the underlying mechanisms of the therapeutic effects of herbs.

Mok made the unusual transition from atmospheric calculations to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) after battling a chronic respiratory condition. Since his childhood, Mok suffered from intermittent coughing fits. Eventually, a friend recommended seeing a Chinese practitioner. “Traditional Chinese Medicine helped. It removed the irritation and the uncomfortable feeling in my throat.” he continued, “After that it became easier to sleep.”

“Maybe there is some placebo effect there, but I had tried western drugs and didn’t have the same improvement,”, Mok explained, “I came into this area of research to develop an algorithm to help analyse the chemical data. Later on I spent more time on understanding the benefits of TCM and why they are effective” Mok said.

When Mok returned from Cambridge to Hong Kong in 1997 there were few regulations controlling the production and distribution of TCM. “You could get the herbs at a food market, if you wanted to,” Mok noted. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region specified that TCM would be one of the services provided by the health care system. An ordinance was drafted to establish a standard of care. The Hong Kong Chinese Materia Medica Standards were developed for commonly used herbs which in turn provided a framework for the work of Mok and his team.

“TCM has been used for thousands of years. However, there is not yet a consensus within the general scientific community on the efficacy of TCM,” Mok explains. “There is a biological effect from TCM but whether this translates into treatment, we have a long way to go before we find scientific evidence.”

Mok studies the metabolites, the chemical products of the reactions in our body. “When we consume food, it is eventually absorbed as amino acids, glucose, lipids, and converted to cholesterol, steroids, hormones, and numerous other substances”. Analysis in TCM is different from studying western medicine in its particular complexity. “A western medicine is a single entity. Usually the data is very clean, you see a single sharp peak that represents the performance.” On the other hand, TCM has a number of compounds in a single extract. For example, ginsenosides, are a class of compound found in ginseng. “We are not very sure if they are all equally powerful and whether they contribute to the same effect, which makes the data complex.”

The analysis becomes even more complex when a formula of Chinese herbs is studied instead of a single herb, since practitioners almost always prescribe several herbs, rather than one. Along with the further aggregation of human clinical samples and data from it, this is a potential future research direction for Mok and his team.

To view Dr Mok's Croucher profile, please click here