Traditional Chinese medicine goes global

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/9/8 19:48:39

Pharmacists in a hospital in Dongyang, East China's Zhejiang Province select traditional Chinese medicine on September 1. Photo: IC

Once eyed with suspicion for not being scientific enough, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) might just be about to take over the world.

As part of a new health drive, Chinese authorities are stepping up research into TCM and are encouraging scientists to look for the next cure.

The game changer for TCM was undoubtedly the discovery of artemisinin, an active compound found it sweet wormwood, which landed a Chinese scientist a Nobel Prize last year, and is now widely used in anti-malarial drugs throughout the world.

"China will encourage originality in TCM and explore the market value of existing research," said Yan Shujiang, deputy director of the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, at a TCM conference in Guangdong Province Monday.

"We are looking to make more technological achievements such as the discovery of artemisinin, a leading cure for malaria."

Tu Youyou, the Chinese researcher who discovered artemisinin, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last year. She was the first Chinese national to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the award significantly raised public and academic interest in TCM. Sweet wormwood had been used as a malaria treatment for centuries in China, and Tu was able to discover exactly why it is effective.

Five other Chinese-born scientists have won science Nobel prizes in the past, but they had all either obtained foreign citizenship or had not officially obtained People's Republic of China citizenship at the time.

The TCM industry is now valued at more than 786 billion yuan ($ 121 billion), almost 30 times larger than 20 years ago, making up one-third of the total medicine industry in China.

Chinese researchers publish 3,000 scientific papers every year, which deepens research into the different herbs, substances, and working mechanics of TCM, said Zhang Boli, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

As the authorities try to modernize TCM and push it onto the world stage, TCM will play a bigger role and could impact the lives of millions, scholars said.

A more precise approach

Harald zur Hausen, a German Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, believes that TCM can be useful in treating certain types of cancer, but said doctors have to first carefully identify specific substances within the herbs prior to treatment.

TCM has had its fair share of problems over the years. As it is based on a holistic and non-quantitative approach, it has faced challenges in stating the precise composition of certain drugs, maintaining stable effects and demonstrating clearly how it works.

"A type of herb that grows in western China works differently from that in the east. Quality control is a major challenge," said Chen Kaixian, a member of Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Researchers said TCM needs to enhance its precision and converge with Western medicine.

"Bringing together Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine - that is, the leveraging of our collective expertise, rather than seeing the two approaches as being in competition -is where the potential for enormous impact lies," said Bernhard Schwartlander, China representative of the World Health Organization.

"Chinese traditional medicine has come a long way, and probably the day will soon come where there will be no Traditional Chinese Medicine and there will be no Western medicine," said Aaron Ciechanover, an Israeli biologist who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

International standards

Establishing an internationally recognized standard is also key for the industrialization of TCM, scholars said.

"Both Japan and Korea are trying to use their own standards for TCM to replace the prevalent standard. So you see there is a whole lot of competition there," said Chen.

An international standard for TCM will legitimatize the use of the medicine all over the world.

China is improving its own national standards. A new national survey of TCM herbs will be carried out across the country soon, said Zhang.

TCM researchers have also stepped up their studies of ancient recipes and promoting intellectual property rights, he said.

"I would be quite optimistic that Traditional Chinese Medicine will play a more significant role in other parts of the world in the future," said Harald zur Hausen.

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