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China's Pharmaceutical Industry Gets Major Push
The central government plans to invest 1 billion yuan (US$120 million) over the next three years to encourage domestic researchers and pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs instead of simply copying existing medications, according to a leading scientist in Shanghai.

The new program marks a massive increase in spending on pharmaceutical research - with the government coughing up 10 times as much money as it spent on research from 1996 to 2000 - and will see traditional Chinese medicine treated equally to Western drugs for the first time.

"The project comes at a critical moment to awaken the country's drugmakers to develop their own ideas," said Yang Shengli, a professor with the Shanghai Research Center of Biotechnology.

Currently, the country's total 6,000-plus pharmaceutical developers own patents on less than 2 percent of the drug formulas on the domestic market. Many of the companies specialize in tinkering with foreign drugs to create their own medicines.

If China really wants to develop its pharmaceutical industry, it must merge some of its smaller companies together to create firms large enough to handle the costs of a proper research program, said Chen Kaixian, director of the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica. Companies should also sign exclusive deals with the country's numerous re-search institutes and universities, Chen added.

He said scientists in Shanghai will cooperate with counterparts in Yunnan Province to find the active ingredients in more than 3,000 traditional Chinese herbs, and then find a way to turn those ingredients into marketable drugs.

Currently, most traditional Chinese medications are sold in herb form, requiring users to boil them before use, which puts the products at a marketing disadvantage compared with Western pills and syrups.

Chen believes China's abundant herbal resources hold the answers to the complicated diseases that can not be cured with other medications.

For example, he said, a natural alkaline known as shishajian have been proven effective in the treatment of senile dementia, and a herbaceous plant known as qinsong works well in treating malaria.

"Unfortunately, we have only made partial efforts in making full use of our biological resources," said Chen.

He noted that researchers know the active ingredients in only 2,000 of the country's 10,000 most-popular herbal medications, and little work is being done to expand on that knowledge. Most pharmaceutical companies in China work to combine herbs to create a new drug they can patent, instead of isolating active ingredients.

"Domestic researchers should do more to uncover the functioning ingredients instead of the combining functions in new Chinese medicines," said Chen, adding that it is more difficult to control the dosage and effectiveness of a herb than of a pill.

Cao Jinyan, vice director of the Beijing-based Intellectual Property Development Research Center, said Chinese researchers own more than 80 percent of drug patents within the country but most of them are for a combination of herbs instead of a single ingredient.

(eastday.com April 24, 2002)

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