Published: 11:21, April 15, 2024
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Ramping up innovations in TCM research
By Liu Zhihua and Liu Zizheng

Integration with new technologies spurs industry's growth

A view of a traditional Chinese herbal medicine market in Bozhou, Anhui province. (ZHANG YANLIN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Utilizing extracts from the common herb chicory, a research team from Beijing University of Chinese Medicine has developed a product that can help manage metabolic disorders such as hyperlipidemia, diabetes, hyperuricemia and metabolic syndrome.

"The chicory health product we developed has been highly recognized by consumers," said Liu Wei, director of the Research Transformation Center at BUCM. "Sales have already reached 50 million yuan ($6.91 million)."

That success is just one example of how universities and enterprises in China are ramping up efforts to promote innovation in the traditional Chinese medicine sector, which has significantly contributed to the evolution of the industry and improved people's livelihoods amid the country's pursuit of high-quality development.

Liu said BUCM and its research team are committed to the inheritance and innovation of TCM.Cooperating with Zhiqi Health Industry (Shandong) Group, an innovation-oriented company on TCM technologies, they are also utilizing chicory to develop a medicine that is expected to help lower uric acid levels and reduce the risk of gout attacks.

Zhang Bing, a celebrated professor at BUCM and leader of the research team, said hyperuricemia (excessive uric acid levels) affects about 13.3 percent of Chinese population and is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.

The use of chicory in TCM can be traced to the eighth century, and extracts from different parts of the herb have unique pharmacological properties for various diseases, Zhang said. While continuing to research the plant's biological components, the team explores medicinal applications for relevant diseases, which can help them develop new drugs and health products more efficiently, she added.

Pharmacists fill prescriptions at a hospital in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province. (ZHANG ZHENGYOU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

TCM, an integral part of China's culture and heritage, has played a significant role in the healthcare of the nation's people for thousands of years. It emphasizes holistic healing and preventive care, focusing on a comprehensive system of healthcare that includes modalities such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, tuina (Chinese medical massage), and dietary therapy.

Nowadays, TCM is practiced alongside modern medicine in hospitals and clinics across the country and has gained recognition internationally, with acupuncture and herbal medicine being used by practitioners worldwide.

Data from the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine show that under China's three-tiered public hospital system, about 89 percent of the secondary and higher-grade public comprehensive hospitals and 62.8 percent of maternity and child health hospitals have TCM departments or clinics. Outpatient visits to TCM medical facilities are estimated to have reached 12.8 billion in 2023.

According to healthcare research institute VCBeat Research, the market of TCM healthcare services is expected to reach 7.13 trillion yuan in 2026, with an average annual compound growth rate of 6.2 percent since 2022. To support development of the expanding market, experts say a modern TCM industry system must be constructed.

"The development of TCM has been deeply integrated with new technologies including big data, internet of things, and artificial intelligence," said Geng Funeng, vice-president of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and chairman of Good Doctor Group, a major enterprise with businesses across TCM research, production and trade. "The modernization of TCM has been accelerating, and sci-tech innovation has become a new engine for its inheritance and development."

Good Doctor Group has embarked on digital upgrades to ensure large-scale and high-quality production of key materials for its flagship TCM patent medicines, including Kanggan Granule, a signature TCM cold treatment, and Kangfuxin Liquid, which uses an extract from American cockroaches to treat bleeding stomach pain, wounds, injuries, and ulcers.

Zhang Bing (right), a professor at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, shows chicory roots to Guan Qinglei (center), chairman of Zhiqi Health Industry (Shandong) Group, in her lab. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The company has invested 860 million yuan in the construction of a digital smart factory, which includes facilities for the large-scale cultivation of the bugs and production lines for Kangfuxin Liquid and Kanggan Granule.

Geng said the aim is to improve production efficiency and product quality supervision through advanced digital technologies, adding that compared to traditional production methods, the digital smart factory boasts a higher level of automation and stricter quality control for a large-scale production capacity.

"We employ digital means to monitor and manage every aspect of the production process, ensuring that every single medicinal product meets stringent quality standards," he said.

Through its digital platform, Good Doctor Group has achieved integration of the entire industry chain, from raw material procurement to product sales, forming a complete supply chain system. This has increased efficiency and reduced costs while also providing consumers with more convenient and high-quality services.

Liu of the Research Transformation Center at BUCM, likewise stressed efforts to empower the TCM industry's development with advanced technologies. He cited the use of artificial intelligence in areas such as drug manufacturing, testing, quality analysis and clinical care aimed at improving work efficiency and enhancing TCM efficacy. As well, the standards for market access need to be adjusted in accordance with the characteristics of the science and technologies in the TCM sector, Liu added.

"The COVID-19 pandemic greatly raised people's awareness about health. This can serve as a great opportunity for us to further promote the innovation and high-quality development of TCM, such as the chicory products," said Liu, noting that as demand for those products increases, cultivation of the herb will continue to expand while the manufacturing technology and product quality become more standardized.

Zhang, the BUCM professor, said carrying out research on the chicory projects has greatly promoted development of relevant industries in the herb's major producing areas, such as Inner Mongolia autonomous region and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, making a significant contribution to China's rural vitalization.

Contact the writers at liuzhihua@chinadaily.com.cn