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China to probe 'immortality' herb

17th January 2012

Chinese legends often mention herbal concoctions designed to confer immortality on those who drink them.

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Recently, researchers in China announced they would re-examine traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as part of a US$1.7 trillion (£1.1 trillion) government initiative.

Scientists hope they will be able to successfully determine the 'active ingredients' in different herbs, using thorough high-tech molecular analyses.

Laboratories in Shanghai and Hong Kong are examining the flower of Tian Shan Xue Lian (Herba Saussureae Involucratae), a rare white flower which only grows at 3,000 feet above sea level.

In Chinese folklore, the flower can resurrect the dead, and it is usually found near the far western border of China, in Xinjiang and Tibet.

The researchers hope they will be able to create a drug that will battle atrial fibrillation, also known as irregular heartbeat.

Currently, TCM drugs are sold as loose herbs, or in powder, capsule and tablet form.

While the drugs are widely used, scientists have rarely managed to tease out the active ingredients in the drug mixtures.

Lead researcher Li Guirong, a cardiology professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that the flower he and his colleagues were studying had been used for thousands of years in Xinjiang, Tibet and India to treat a whole spectrum of maladies.

He said that he had worked eight years on returning irregular heart rhythms to normal, using the flower's innate set of molecules.

Scientists in China are currently enjoying an unprecedented level of government funding.

Li and his colleagues found the key ingredient of Tian Shan Xue Lian was acacetin.

Using traditional organic synthesis, the researchers created a synthetic version of acacetin in the lab, and found it worked to treat irregular heartbeat in dogs.

The researchers will begin human trials in the next three years, and have already received a patent for the molecule acacetin.

Statistically, China's prescription drug market stands to be the world's second largest by 2020.

The approach by which scientists 'reverse engineer' TCMs to attempt to find the molecule responsible for the health benefits of traditional drugs has yielded results in the past.

China's best-known medical export, the anti-malaria drug artemisinin, is derived from the sweet wormwood shrub. The drug had been used in TCM malaria treatment before it was finally isolated in government-funded research.

Jason Mann, pharmaceuticals and healthcare analyst with Barclays Capital in Hong Kong, said he felt scientists would see a rebalancing away from what was an exclusive focus on Western chemical drugs, to include more traditional Chinese medicines.

He said that the Chinese government was supporting TCM because it was a key heritage, something to be proud of, and that 5,000 years of history could not all be wrong.

TCM includes about 12,807 documented prescriptions. The divese elements of such treatments are combined by Chinese doctors, making up thousands of different remedies, to suit the TCM diagnostic process.



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