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 its next magic cure.
The game changer for TCM was undoubtedly the discovery of artemisinin, an active compound of sweet wormwood, which landed China 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 on Sept 5.
“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.
“The present time is a golden age for TCM to develop and prosper,” said Yan.
The TCM industry is now valued at over 786 billion yuan (about $121 billion), almost 30 times larger than 20 years ago, and one-third of the total medicine industry in China.
Chinese researchers publish 3,000 scientific papers every year, which deepen research into the different herbs, substances, and working mechanics of TCM, said Zhang Boli, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
TCM is steadily building up its own roster of wonder drugs: alongside artemisinin used for malaria, epimedium (horny goat weed) is used to fight cancer, rhizoma curculiginis has proved useful in treating depression, and tripterine is effective in treating lung cancer, according to TCM researchers at the conference.
Berberine, a popular medicine used by the Chinese to treat diarrhea, can work well treating metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia, high blood pressure and fatty liver disease, doctors said.
As authorities in China 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 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.
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 Kaixian.
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 Boli.
TCM researchers have also stepped up the studying 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.