China holds great opportunities, but their drug industry must clean up its act

Herbal remedies have long been a source of inspiration to chemists, and the search for active natural products is increasingly turning to traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs).

Both ephedrine (a bronchodilator) and artemisinin (a potent antimalarial agent) were originally discovered in TCMs, and now chemists are hoping to mine other traditional formulations for the most promising molecules. 

So while horny goat’s weed and black bear bile might sound little better than snake oil, their successful use for centuries suggests that they contain powerful compounds that could be extracted, and even improved (see Feature: ’Chinese medicine in western packaging’). 

And for the black bears themselves, rigorous chemical analysis can’t come too soon - the booming trade in Chinese medicines around the world is putting many species under threat, so synthetic alternatives are urgently needed. 

To that end, the Chinese government has recently unveiled a 15-year plan to research and develop TCMs, along with improving manufacturing and setting stringent quality control standards. It could also lead to collaborations with international pharmaceutical companies, which are already flocking to China to set up new research centres. 

This is a great opportunity - but it will be wasted if the Chinese drug industry cannot clean up its act. The former head of the Chinese State Food and Drug Agency is about to face trial for taking bribes, and it has become increasingly clear that the drug evaluation and approval process in China has been seriously derailed by endemic corruption (see News: ’Bribery and corruption exposed in China’s drug business’).

As western businesses move into China, they will want reassurance that local companies and government agencies are playing by the rules. Without that trust in place, little progress can be made and potential new drugs will be lost to us all. 

New frontiers 

Here at Chemistry World, China has been high on the agenda for other reasons.

In September, we plan to launch a Chinese edition of this magazine that will circulate to members of the Chinese Chemical Society. Chemistry World: China  will carry the news and features of the regular edition, supplemented with articles sourced and written by Chinese journalists about the burgeoning chemical enterprise in their country.

Existing readers will be able to access this additional content on our website, along with the usual mix of daily news stories, blogs and podcasts that are already available there for free.

A trial issue of Chemistry World: China was sent out to around 1200 Chinese chemists in April, and has already garnered positive feedback.

We hope that this will be the first of many similar collaborations with other chemical societies around the world, which will continue to broaden our global perspective on the molecular sciences. 

Mark Peplow, editor