In a case of East meets West, Yale pharmacology professor Yung-Chi Cheng generated a new addition to the “cocktail” drug industry from a medicinal formula found in 1,800 year-old Chinese literature.

Taking the form of the pill PHY906 — a multi-component botanical drug that treats the side-effects resulting from chemotherapy — this reinvention of traditional Chinese herbal medicine forms the backbone of PhytoCeutica, Inc., a pharmaceutical and biotechnology spin-off from Yale founded by Cheng.

“It has led us to the way that — we should do pharmaceutical discovery, with single targets and single molecules,” said Robert Tilton, PhytoCeutica’s vice president of science and technology. “Chinese medicine is much more holistic. We look at the whole body as a system of components — treating the disease, not the target, and perhaps not the cause. It’s a multi-factorial perspective from a pharmacological endpoint, rather than a mechanistic endpoint.”

By extracting and synthesizing the ingredients into a multi-component pill, Tilton said Cheng’s research heralds a departure from the mainstream reductionist approach of current western society. The reductionist approach, an inheritance from 16th century Europe, considers a problem by breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces, and trying to understand it at a higher level, he said. Cheng proposes combining one drug with another drug in a systematic matter or relying on a history of remedies to arrive at a complex mixture. This method enables scientists to combat diseases resulting from multiple causes — aging, neurological degeneration such as Alzheimer’s, metabolic diabetes and cancer, Cheng said.

“In the body, thousands of molecules appear to work synergistically, and you need multiple [drugs] to get pharmaceutical benefit,” Tilton said. “When you combine them together into a cocktail medicine, you enhance the potency tremendously.”

PhytoCeutica will soon bring an FDA-approved drug into the pharmaceutical market. The FDA has shown an increased interest recently in regulating Chinese medicines, forcing them to pass FDA tests for prescription drugs. In addition, on Jan. 12, the Institute of Medicine called for tougher regulations to ensure the products are safe and effective in meeting their producers’ claims. The institute expressed concern about the quality of dietary supplements, saying “there is little product reliability.”

“For the past two or three decades, mainstream society has been engaged in an inquiry into traditionally ethnic medicines,” said Giovanni Maciocia, a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine who trained at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Despite increased scrutiny, Cheng said researchers should not abandon historical medical evidence when searching for new treatments and he acknowledges history’s influence on his work.

“Don’t forget history, we can learn a lot from history,” Cheng said. “Sometimes we think we’ve discovered something new, when actually we are reinventing history with a new face.”