Drug research and development buoyed by TCM

Li Qian
China is making its presence felt in the world of new drug research and development, with traditional Chinese medicine a big plus, experts have said.
Li Qian
Drug research and development buoyed by TCM

A researcher checks samples of artemisinin at the National Germplasm Repository of Artemisia Annua in Liuzhou city, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

China is making its presence felt in the world of new drug research and development, with traditional Chinese medicine a big plus, experts told the 24th Shanghai International Forum on Biotechnology & Pharmaceutical industry.

It's widely believed that China's pharmaceutical ecosystem has entered into a watershed moment - moving from the production of generics to development of innovative drugs.

A McKinsey report shows the market value of publicly listed biopharma innovation players from China across the Nasdaq, HKEX and STAR Market surged from US$3 billion in 2016 to more than US$380 billion in July 2021.

It seems to Su Weiguo that China has joined the big league in new drug R&D.

"China's continuous policy support has accelerated changes in the regulatory and market environment in recent years," said the chief executive officer of domestic bio-pharmaceutical HUTCHMED.

Domestically-developed drugs are taking a bigger proportion of the total number approved in China year by year. This has dramatically risen from only 1 percent in 2017 to nearly 45 percent in 2021, Su said, citing official statistics.

"In other words, new drugs on sale abroad will soon be accessible to domestic patients," he said. "Sometimes we are the first to make them."

In China, every year, about 4 million people are diagnosed with cancers and nearly 3 million die of cancers, especially gastrointestinal tumors like stomach, liver and gut, due to local lifestyles and habits.

Describing these as "cancers with Chinese characteristic," Su pointed out that the development of new drugs to treat these cancers are often underplayed in western countries. So, it's vital domestic players make changes.

But he admitted there is still a long way to grow to be on par with the United States, though China's new drug R&D is gradually keeping pace with its status as the world's second-largest healthcare market.

"However, China demonstrates its great potential," he said.

Jiang Jiandong, an academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering, finds TCM as a good entry point.

"Many countries are unable to develop new drugs, but China has unique advantages," he said.

He cited the example of the discovery of artemisinin, a drug therapy for malaria that has saved millions of lives across the world and gained Tu Youyou the Noble Prize.

"Herbs bring great opportunities," said Jiang, also head of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Research, CAMS &PUMC.

"Seven out of nine domestically-developed drugs considered as major breakthroughs in China's history over the past 100 years were developed based on plants and minerals."

TCM is able to suppress symptoms and treat the root cause as well. However, it's not easy to identify how it works, which strangles its promotion and recognition in the world, he said.

China is advancing new drug innovations. It's stressed in the country's 14th Five-Year innovation plan to make headway on resolving biotechnological difficulties. And Shanghai plays a pioneering role.

It has become the first choice for multinational biopharmaceutical companies to enter China, said Zhu Qigao, deputy director of Shanghai Science and Technology Commission.

Of the world's top 20 pharmaceuticals, 17 have their Chinese headquarters in Shanghai and 14 set up R&D headquarters or innovation centers in Shanghai. This drives Shanghai to stand at the center of the global biomedicine innovation network.

He added that Shanghai has also formed its own innovation ecosystem by forming innovation highlands in Zhangjiang, Lingang and Fengxian. It has worked. Last year, one of five Class 1 new drugs approved by the nation were developed in Shanghai.

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