Sustainable model being sought from traditional medicines

November 11, 2011
Gerry O'Kane
Chinese traditional medicine

There has been a flurry of announcements from the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) market, indicating a renewed interest in a “sustainable” goldmine that was worth about USD48.8 billion last year for China alone. One of the developments has been a new database from British researchers.

Last week Wang Guoqiang, China's vice minister of health and also director of the State Administration of TCM said it was important to sustainable development and announced the fourth government supported survey for TCM.

As if on queue, Malaysia's Science, Technology and Innovation deputy minister Fadillah Yusof announced a radical shakeup of the country's research institutes to “expand the herbal market internationally”.

And both announcements came days after a little noticed press release from King’s College London researchers announcing a new collaborative database of chemical components found in traditional Chinese medicines.

The Malaysian reorganization is seen as part of the national direction of developing an “international” biopharma industry, the new institute of biotechnology would merge the Malaysian Pharmaceutical and Nutraceutical Institute, Malaysian Genome Institute and Malaysian Agrobiotechnology Institute. Yusof also said the merger would conduct herb-related research and development projects and linked them to the national Bionexus program run by the BiotechCorp.

China's move on the new survey does seem somewhat belated since the third survey was in 1987 when it concluded there were over 12,000 types of TCM resources. Considering the sector was valued at USD48.8 billion in 2010 by the National Development and Reform Commission (up 29.5 percent from 2009), the administration may be seen as somewhat slow off the mark in new research. 

Apart from skepticism to the efficacy of many traditional Chinese treatments in the west due to a lack of scientific rigor, there remains its links with the slaughter of endangered species for parts in treatments. Only last month the WWF and the International Rhino Foundation said Vietnam's last Javan rhino was killed and its horn had been cut off ostensibly for “medicine”.

However the renewed interest from China and Malaysia reflects a growing commercial business globally. According to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers entitled Investing in China’s Pharmaceutical Industry – 2nd Edition TCM made up 40 percent of China's total pharmaceutical market. There is also a growing export market. According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council the US can make up 45 percent of global TCM sales.

However, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report points to problems the sector has is addressing the inconsistencies found in its manufacturing processes. “Although the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) has regulated Chinese herbal medicine manufacturers based on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) since 1995, widespread corruption has severely undermined the effectiveness of this certification,” it said.

And the Chinese administration realizes the commercial benefits of scientific authentication of effects and chemistry. Researchers aiming to bridge the gap between Chinese and Western systems of medicine have claimed the first database of chemical compounds found in herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.