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University of Basel

Should complementary medicine be the subject of research just like other disciplines,

Text: Philipp Treutlein

How should university research approach complementary medicine? A debate between a pharmacist and a physician.

Illustrated portrait of Prof. Dr. Philipp Treutlein. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Dr. Philipp Treutlein. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

Complementary medicine covers a wide range, from traditional herbalism to treatments rooted in spiritual beliefs or philosophies of life. It claims to “complement” academic medicine, which is defined as scientific medicine and demands standards for the effectiveness of a therapy. According to conventional medicine, diseases and their treatments are based on physical, chemical, biological and psychological processes.

There are obviously diseases that we do not (yet) understand at a molecular level. For that reason, conventional medicine does also use drugs whose mechanism of action is not yet known. The success of the therapy justifies their use. However, the essential precondition is that this success can be empirically demonstrated. This is done in clinical trials that comply with the accepted standards of the scientific community. Any type of therapy must meet this requirement for empirical evidence of its effectiveness, whether it is regarded as “complementary” or not. It is the task of medical research to conduct and evaluate these studies and this must be done independently of politics, business or interest groups.

For scientific research, there is also the question of the mechanism of action of a therapy. (Bio)medical and pharmaceutical science attempts to discover the molecular causes of diseases and understand the mechanisms of action of drugs, with the aim of improving existing drug treatments and developing new ones. This also applies to fields of complementary medicine such as phytopharmacy, in which plant extracts are examined for their pharmaceutical effectiveness. It is irrelevant whether they originate from traditional folk medicine or were discovered via a different route. Provided molecules produce a reproducible effect, which may be enzyme activities in the test tube, cell cultures and animal models, or human probands, the scientific approach makes sense and can provide new insights.

Philipp Treutlein is Professor of Physics and is currently Dean of Research at the Faculty of Science. He is exploring the fundamentals of quantum physics in experiments with atoms and light and developing new applications in quantum technology.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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