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February 10, 2010

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Chinese atom-smasher unlocks mysteries of acupuncture

A subatomic particle accelerator in Shanghai has detected some physical evidence that acupuncture points in traditional Chinese medicine actually do exist, addressing major questions posed by Western science about the mysterious acupoints.

Scientists in Shanghai are using China's most expensive science project, a light-emitting synchrotron, to solve the mystery of acupuncture points.

The Shanghai-based subatomic particle accelerator has detected evidence that acupuncture points differ from other parts of the body, according to Zhang Xinyi, deputy director with the synchrotron radiation research center at Fudan University.

"We are trying to figure out the three-dimensional structure of the acupuncture points with the light resources," he says.

The synchrotron, which uses super-powerful X-rays to resolve the structure of matter down to the level of atoms, is the world's fourth most powerful of this type of particle accelerator.

It went into trial operation in May 2009 and has already produced results.

Many foreigners have found acu-therapy (acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion) effective, but doubted whether acupuncture points actually exist because they have not been physically identified, he says.

A synchrotron is a kind of cyclic subatomic particle accelerator in which the magnetic field, electric field and traveling particle beam are synchronized.

X-ray beams emitted by the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility (SSRF) are 100 million times brighter, and 10,000 times more intense than the beam produced by a standard X-ray machine, says Xiao Tiqiao, head of the construction of SSRF's beam lines.

Zhang and his team's previous study of acupuncture points involved the examination of human and rabbit tissue samples at the Beijing Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

"In an experiment on rabbit tissue, we have found that at acupuncture point regions there exists the accumulation of micro-vessels. But the images taken in the surrounding tissue out of the acupuncture points do not show such structures," says Zhang and his colleagues in the paper, "Imaging Study on Acupuncture Points" for the 9th International Conference on X-Ray Microscopy in 2008.

The micro-vessels of a long blood vessel and some fine branches were observed at the acupuncture point of the sanyinjiao acupuncture point on the rabbit's lower leg, and a short cluster of vessels at the tianshu point on the belly. The micro-vessel gathering has also been detected at the neiguan point on the foreleg and zusanli on the lower leg.

They also determined that the content of calcium, zinc, iron and copper were significantly higher at three of four human acupuncture points examined. The jianshi (forearm), tiaokou and xiajuxu (both on the lower leg) points had higher content than the surrounding tissues, although the finding was not confirmed at the ximen (forearm) point.

Their paper suggested these structures had a link with the function of acupuncture points and played an important role in acupuncture treatments.

The SSRF, designed to boost China's capacity in scientific research, concluded a nine-month trial operation last month.

The light sources of the SSRF can emit different electromagnetic waves tailored to scientific experiments in many fields such as life sciences, biochemical projects and new materials, Xiao says.

During the trial operation, the light sources helped in the treatment of fatal cancers, a task led by the scholars with the Med-X Institute of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

"The beam lines are just like super microscopes. They can contribute to the treatment of early-stage cancers by detecting the tumor cells that might be overlooked by the X-ray at a hospital," Xiao says.

Other researchers used the super X-rays to shed light on the treatment of brain diseases, and they have already yielded breakthroughs.

"The SSRF had created a clear and detailed image of the tiny cephalic arteries of a living mouse, which could enable the observation of dynamic pathological changes in the human brain," says Yang Guoyuan, deputy head of the Med-X Institute, also a user of the SSRF.

The SSRF could also shorten the period of developing a new drug by three to four years, says Shen Xu, a researcher with the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica under the Chinese Academy of Science(CAS).

The light sources can reveal the three-dimensional structure of viruses, and thus help researchers design a drug to cure them, Shen says. He has been working on new drugs against cancers and diabetes.

The 1.43 billion yuan (US$210 million) SSRF was China's costliest science project, according to the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, SSRF's major participant.

It has seven experimental beam line stations, which enable more than 100 scientists to work together.

The storage ring, a pivotal facility where high-energy electrons circulate, operates at a constant energy of 3.5 billion electron-volts (GeV), the fourth highest in the world after Spring-8 in Japan, APS in the United States and ESRF in Europe.

The construction of the 200,000-square-meter project began in December 2004 in Shanghai's Zhangjiang Hi-tech Park.

Since the platform was put into trial operation in May 2009, it has provided beam line experiments for about 1,000 researchers in charge of 432 scientific tasks for 15,436 hours.

"By 2030, we will have 60 beam lines, which would allow more than 1,000 researchers to work at the same time," says Jiang Mianheng, general director of the SSRF project and deputy head of the CAS.


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