Exposed at a young age to the world of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Ed Lui has since become one of Canada’s leading experts in the field.
“My father had a company that manufactured Chinese medicines in Hong Kong, so I saw both the manufacturing and production processes,” says Lui, a physiology & pharmacology professor in Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “That’s why I decided to study pharmacy – it was the first step.”
Long part of many Asian cultures, the use of TCM and other Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) has grown in popularity in North America. According to Lui, an increasing number of healthcare practitioners are recommending CAM to complement conventional treatments, and as many as 50 per cent of Canadians use some form regularly.
Supplements that contain ingredients like ginseng are popular among those hoping to increase energy levels or boost their immune systems, but Lui hopes to show therapeutic uses may in fact reach much further. “More research must be done,” he says. “While ginseng is one of the top-selling herbs, most consumers are using it as a tonic, without fully understanding its potential benefits.”
Despite widespread global popularity, many herbal remedies used in everyday health regimens have yet to be proven safe or effective using modern, evidence-based standards. As Eastern and Western medical approaches become more integrated, there are growing demands for research that explores the clinical significance of health claims and the suggested benefits these herbs provide.
Enter Lui and his colleagues at the Ontario Ginseng Innovation Research Consortium (OGIRC), a five-year program advancing research, commercialization and outreach efforts related to ginseng. “The perception of risk and benefit by most consumers is not based on scientific evidence,” he says. “One of our jobs is to educate the public in this matter.”
OGIRC combines the expertise of nearly 20 scientists from across the province and is funded by $7 million from the Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation – a figure matched by contributions from partner universities, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the agricultural and industrial sectors. The consortium’s researchers strive to understand how ginseng can relieve serious health issues, ranging from diabetes and depression to obesity, cystic fibrosis, arthritis and cancer.
Cultivating extensive research collaborations with some of the top institutions in China, Lui continues to contribute to the understanding of Chinese herbal medicines in Canada, and to spread awareness of their medical benefits throughout the academic and professional pharmaceutical fields.
Ginseng is also big business locally, with Ontario producing more than 70 per cent of the world’s supply – 85 per cent of which is exported to Asia. To be viable, however, Lui believes it is critically important to study the herb’s consistency in quality in terms of its phytochemical profile and medicinal properties, which can vary depending on several environmental and genetic factors.
“Providing proof for the medicinal effects and understanding the mechanisms of action of ginseng would have limited impact on consumers if we could not guarantee consistency in the quality of ginseng products that are sold,” he says. “The ginseng market is highly competitive, which drives us to apply new agricultural and plant biotechnologies that improve quality through understandings of the genomics of the ginseng plant.”
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