Research Topic

Assessing the Pharmacological Effects and Therapeutic Efficacy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Neurological Disease Models

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About this Research Topic

Neurological diseases refer to a wide spectrum of diseases affecting the central and peripheral nervous system. Among the numerous neurological diseases, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, attract particularly wide attention because of their high ...

Neurological diseases refer to a wide spectrum of diseases affecting the central and peripheral nervous system. Among the numerous neurological diseases, stroke and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, attract particularly wide attention because of their high prevalence, disability-inducing aspect and currently incurable nature. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a traditional medical system widely used by Asian people to treat diseases. Currently, up to 20-40% of patients with the above-mentioned diseases are receiving TCM treatment in China.

During the past few decades, there has been a major growth in experimental studies of TCM-originated materials (formula, herb extract and single compounds) on neurological diseases models. Moreover, the quality of research has greatly improved: the chemical compositions of TCM are efficiently characterized using the powerful mass spectrometer and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy; advanced technology like proteomic, metabolomics and transcriptomic approaches are applied to study the complicated pharmacological effects of TCM extracts; molecular biological and structural biological tools have been used to dissect the drug target and relevant signaling pathways; transgenic animal models have been applied to evaluate the therapeutic potentials of TCM-originated materials.

However, there also remain many unsolved problems, broadly defined in terms of four issues:

-there is a huge gap between the experimental data and the traditional use of TCM;
-the evidence to support the efficacy and safety of TCM material is still weak;
-the methodologies used are often of limited relevance for the diseases conditions under investigation;
-and the molecular mechanisms of the drug effects are far from clear.

This Research Topic seeks to make a significant contribution in bridging these evidentiary gaps, forming a resource for the safe and efficacious implementation of TCM approaches, testing the pharmacological activity, potential efficacy and safety of their employment in neurological disease models. Importantly, it will also define the limitations of such approaches using herbal medical preparation as well as pure natural products. Research must be based on a well-defined and testable hypothesis or research question

To assist in achieving this goal, the following formal standards are indispensable for all submissions:

The four pillars of best practice in ethnopharmacology

With these guidelines we define in detail what constitutes best practice for manuscripts submitted to Frontiers in Pharmacology; Section Ethnopharmacology. They provide a basis for the peer review and build on the general requirements of Frontiers in Pharmacology.

1) Pharmacology

a) The manuscript (MS) must report s substantive body of ethnopharmacological research, to be considered as an independent addition to the literature. In general we expect that such studies are based on local / traditional uses of plants or other natural substances which need to be spelled out clearly.

b) For pharmacological studies, the model used must be one which is either generally, accepted in the field as a valid one or justification must be provided, that, for example, a new model was developed and why.

Specifically antioxidant activity must be based on a pharmacologically relevant in vivo model. Simple in silico and pharmacologically irrelevant assays for antioxidant activity (e.g. the DPPH assay, FRAP (Ferric Reducing Ability of Plasma), ABTS (2,2'-azinobis-(3-ethylbenzothiazoline-6-sulfonic acid)) are not acceptable as a main tool for assessing an extract or a compound for activity.

c) Similarly, simple screening for anti-microbial of crude extracts is no longer state-of-the-art. Authors must follow the widely accepted standards for microbiological testing (cf. Cos et al. 2006 Anti-infective potential of natural products: How to develop a stronger in vitro ‘proof-of-concept’ Journal of Ethnopharmacology 106: 290–302) and subsequent methods papers. Such research is only meaningful if it contributes to our mechanistic understanding of anti-microbial effects, its specificity or identifies novel leads.

d) The dose ranges must be therapeutically relevant. While it will be impossible to define an exact cut-off, the literature in the field is now replete with studies which test extracts at implausibly high doses. Single dose studies will only be of relevance in exceptional circumstances (e.g. in case of specific complex pharmacological models). And of course, positive and negative controls must be included.

e) In order to establish therapeutic benefits, selectivity data are essential. How specific is the effect? Many compounds have non-selective in vitro effects and research on common compounds must be justified in terms of the potential therapeutic benefits. While such research may be relevant and have potential applications, authors will need to assess the specificity of a single compound or an extract rich in a well-studied compound (like rutin, curcumin, or quercitin) and provide evidence for the relevance and novelty of the approach

2) Composition:

a) Botanical:

The identification of the study material must be described well. All species are fully validated using Kew MPNS portal or The Plant List initiative or Plants of the World Online Of course, full botanical documentation is essential (i.e. a voucher specimen deposited in a recognised herbarium). A scan of the voucher(s) is welcome as supplementary material and encourage authors to include the coordinates of the location where the material had been collected.

b) Chemical

- The composition of the study material must be described in sufficient detail. Chromatograms with a characterisation of the dominating compound(s) are preferable. If preparations are used which are available commercially quality parameters provided in pharmacopoeia must be provided. The material under study must be characterised using the methods of the relevant monograph

- If ‘pure’ compounds are used sufficient information on the level of purity must be included. Especially in in vitro models, the authors must be confident that the compounds are stable under the conditions used (for example, they do not degrade due to high concentrations of DMSO). How are these assays and extraction protocols linked to local and traditional uses?

- All chemical line structures must be drawn using a internationally accepted structure drawing programme, must be consistent and - if possible and relevant - the stereochemistry needs to be given.

c) Multiherbal preparations:

Very often multiherbal preparations are used. Full information on their composition (in terms of the botanical drugs / species included) and information on the rationale for studying this preparation needs to be included. It is essential that in these cases sufficient details are provided on the botanical (2a) and chemical (2b) characterisation.

3) Basic requirements and research ethics

Frontiers has very well developed guidelines relating to ethical aspects of a MS. Specifically, for Frontiers in Pharmacology (Ethnopharmacology) the following key requirements are essential:

a) The objectives of the research reported must be spelled out clearly and in detail. All MS must critically assess the scientific basis of the work and provide meaningful conclusions, which are based on a clear hypothesis / research question as defined in the introduction. Ethnopharmacological research must assess whether a compound or plant extract has a certain effect and it cannot be about ‘confirming an extract’s or compound’s effects or efficacy’.

b) Research must add new and scientifically substantive knowledge to our understanding of the pharmacology and use of medicinal plants. A key basis for this is a review of literature relevant to the studied pharmacological activity. This must be up-to-date, and clearly demonstrate the substantive addition to the literature the MS submitted represents. Simply using advanced measurements/techniques/protocols reproducing previous studies of the of the same plant product will only be accepted in exceptional circumstances (e.g. previously unknown, highly active components are discovered).

c) Compliance with all international ethical standards is essential. In the context of ethnopharmacology, the Convention on Biological Diversity and, most recently, the Nagoya Protocol are of particular relevance.

d) Research in ethnopharmacology is based on local and traditional knowledge often passed on orally over generations. Ultimately, research in this field must therefore benefit those populations who are or were the original keeper of this knowledge.

e) The use of animals must be justified in the context of novelty (see also part 1). It is ethically not acceptable to have yet another in vivo study on an already well-studied species, demonstrating some common activity (e.g. an anti-inflammatory effect studied in the rat-paw oedema). The same is true for species which are chemically very similar (and generally are rich in common ingredient) to ones already studied pharmacologically. Such studies must ‘meet(s) the standards of rigor’ we expect in ethnopharmacology as defined in the Frontiers’ guidelines.

4) Other specific requirements

a) Studies focusing on local and traditional uses of plants (ethnopharmacological field studies) must be based on substantial, original data. The relevance of the MS in the context of previous studies in the geographical region must be spelled out clearly and it must contribute to the understanding of the therapeutic uses of plant species and inform experimental or clinical studies This includes an adequate presentation and discussion of the data. Also, social science centered studies (e.g. ethnobotanical studies or health system research of local and traditional medical systems) are welcome. This journal subscribes to the ConSEFS standards including any updates.

b) In case of reviews, we expect clearly defined scientific aims (objectives), a critical and specific assessment of the relevant information linking local and other medical uses to the biomedical and bioscientific evidence. These reviews must be comprehensive and specific. They need to define future research needs and priorities. If pharmacological studies are reviewed, particular attention must be paid to assessing the quality of the studies.

c) Food plants are commonly reported to have pharmacological effects. Frontiers in Ethnopharmacology focuses on therapeutic benefits of such species and not on the general food/nutritional properties.


Keywords: Traditional Chinese medicine, Neurological diseases, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases, Pre-clinic study


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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