Global drug makers eye domination by unlocking potential of ancient Chinese herbs

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Tian Shan Xue Lian
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Tian Shan Xue Lian is a rare white flower found in snow-capped mountains. It is revered as a panacea and an elixir so powerful that can bring the dead back to life. This cusped, wrinkly flower, the size of an avocado is being used in laboratories with hopes to develop a new drug to treat life-threatening diseases like heart stroke, irregular heart beat or artrial fibrillation.

The natural way of maintaining well being is becoming one of the most appreciated and valued science today. Scientists in China are re-examining the traditional Chinese medicines – roots and herbs used in bygone ages – to find and reproduce the healing ingredients that can be used in mass manufactured and consumed drugs.

Herbal drugs are widely sold by Chinese drug makers in several parts of the country in shape of powders and capsules. However, scientists are more keen on making them globally available and passing them through rigorous clinical tests to ensure they have?no side effects.

Li Guirong, a cardiology professor at University of Hong Kong, boasts that Tian Shan Xue Lian flower has been in use for thousands of years in the Orient for treatment of major illnesses.

tian shan xue lian
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“This flower has been used for thousands of years in Xinjiang, Tibet and India to treat a range of illnesses…For the Chinese, it was used for ‘disorderly heartbeat,'” said Li Guirong, a cardiology professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“I have worked eight years on this. Our aim is to return an irregular heart rhythm to normalcy…with a drug that has fewer side effects,” he added.

As China is focusing its attention on cleaner hi-tech industries, the central government is committing around $1.7 trillion over the next five years to nurture herbal medicines. Chinese scientists are enjoying unprecedented official support and access to funding to create better drugs and diagnostic tools to treat chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

Li and his colleagues at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, backed by government funding,?began to study the Tian Shan Xue Lian, or Herba Saussureae Involucratae, eight years ago which thrives 3,000 meters above sea level in the Tibetan highlands.

Acacetin is the key ingredient that they extracted from the herb and created its synthetic twin which found success in experiments on dogs with arterial fibrillation. They hope to begin experiments on humans in the next three years with active backing from China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp, parent of the country’s largest Hong Kong-listed drug distributor Sinopharm Group Co Ltd.

“We received a patent for it (acacetin) and hope to make it into a drug together with Sinopharm. We hope to market it in China and internationally eventually,” Li said.


The fast growth of the China?s domestic drug sector is attracting Western drug makers to the country in order to maintain their profit margins amid a patent cliff and downfall in Western markets.

Merck & Co Inc, Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc, have announced their ambitious joint research plans with Chinese companies to develop new drug for Chinese patients. They are also keen on expanding their distribution grids.

The unprecedented interest of Western drug companies in Chinese market is understandable. According to various medicine industry researchers, China is set to become the world’s second biggest prescription drug market by 2020, with an estimated growth of more than $110 billion by 2015 from $50 billion in 2010.

New drug research has become a major market. The government has allocated 6.7 billion yuan ($1.06 billion) to support biotechnology firms and fund their research.

Well acclaimed global TCM producers like Yunnan Baiyao Group Co Ltd, which makes an anti-bleeding powder, Zhangzhou Pientzehuang Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, Jiangsu Hengruli Medicine Co Ltd, and Sinopharm are keen on investing more capital into research and development over the next five years.

Artemisinin, the best known anti-malaria drug,?is derived from sweet wormwood shrub and has been used to treat the disease for thousands of years. The drug emerged as the world’s best line of defence against malaria when a project initiated by the Chinese Red Army in 1960s managed to isolate the active compound and use it on massive scale.

“We will see a rebalancing away from what was an exclusive focus on Western chemical drugs to include more traditional Chinese medicines,” Jason Mann, pharmaceuticals and healthcare analyst with Barclays Capital in Hong Kong, said in an interview.

“The Chinese government is supporting TCM. It is a key heritage; something to be proud of. Five thousand years of history can’t all be wrong. And it is just pragmatic. These are difficult, expensive diseases. Whatever approach you can take to keep patients healthy and out of hospital will be good.”

(By Manasa Kesiraju with input from Reuters; Edited by Moign Khawaja)

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