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USF Pharmacy applies Western medicine research rigor to Chinese medicine

Working hands of acupuncture

The USF College of Pharmacy’s acupuncture research with a renowned group at Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine isn’t shying away from the challenge of integrating the theory of traditional Chinese medicine into conventional Western biomedical research and healthcare.

A recent animal-model study by the USF-China team, led by the USF Professor Shufeng Zhou, MD, PhD, showed that an increase in antioxidant enzymes triggered by acupuncture appears to play a role in lowering high blood pressure. The group plans to collaborate on a longer-term study.

Kevin Sneed, PharmD, professor and dean of the USF College of Pharmacy and a study co-author, believes that the U.S. healthcare system would more fully embrace complementary and alternative therapies like acupuncture if increased scientific rigor was applied to defining the underlying biomolecular processes that make them work.  Identifying reliable biomarkers to determine if acupuncture was properly administered would be a powerful tool in validating and optimizing the treatments.

Designing preclinical and clinical studies to best evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture, in which very thin needles are inserted at specific points on the body according to a person’s unique needs, is difficult, Dr. Sneed acknowledges. “But, the ability to decipher what’s a real effect and what’s a placebo effect is important.”

Kevin Sneed, College of Pharmacy
       Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of the College of Pharmacy

Laura Weathers, MD, a USF Health pediatrician, says both patient demand for alternative therapies and the number of U.S. physicians trained in acupuncture has increased significantly since she began integrating the ancient Chinese therapy into her practice seven years ago.  She is one of some 300 physicians certified by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture.

Dr. Weathers agrees more scientific research is needed before acupuncture is widely accepted (and appropriately reimbursed) as a reliable therapeutic option in Western medicine. However, she points to a 1997 National Institutes of Health consensus statement and other more recent published analyses concluding that there is good evidence to use acupuncture for a number of conditions, particularly the side effects of chemotherapy (nausea and vomiting) and pain-related problems including low back pain, headache, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia (general muscle pain), and osteoarthritis.

More recently, Dr. Weathers began using acupuncture to help treat attention deficit disorder or allergies and asthma, primarily in young patients experiencing intolerable side effects from medications.

Laura Weathers, pediatrics
USF pediatrician Dr. Laura Weathers, certified acupuncturist

Often, acupuncture costs are paid out of pocket, although some insurance plans may cover a portion of the treatments.

“I was hopeful, but skeptical, when I started using acupuncture,” Dr. Weathers said. “But, I can tell you I’ve gotten some good results.”

Given acupuncture’s lack of side effects, Dr. Weathers said, “if it helps some patients decrease their use of medications to a manageable level, or alleviates pain that may have kept them bedridden, then that’s a huge benefit.”

In the meantime, the USF College of Pharmacy continues working to better understand the physiology of acupuncture and bridge the gap between Western and traditional Chinese medicine.  With changes in the healthcare system and a growing over-65 population, Dr. Sneed said, the impetus for “affordable, safe and effective” alternatives to treat chronic illnesses has never been greater.