Traditional Chinese medicine has long attracted attention from the scientific community, thanks to its abundant historical literature and materials, and its full integration into the Chinese healthcare system.
But the domestic industry has fared relatively poorly in the world market, found the team from Kings College London, during a government-funded trip to 19 universities and companies.
The global herbal medicine market is thought to be worth up to $30 billion, depending on which categories are included. But Chinese manufacturers account for only 3-7 per cent of the market outside China.
However governments of both China and Singapore have begun to recognise the importance of scientific research and international regulatory standards as ways of promoting their industries, reveal participants on last October's fact-finding mission.
This is seen in China's pushing through of global regulation standards including GMPs, good clinical practice and good laboratory practice (GLP). And increasingly the traditional medicine sector is looking for ways to prove and patent the medicinal uses of Chinese herbs, at internationally acceptable standards.
With China's entry to the World Trade Organisation next year, it will become a much more interesting business prospect, and the report outlines a number of potential areas of collaboration. These include co-patenting strategies, where a UK company deals with IP protection outside of China, and use of the country's facilities for screening natural products. It also has 'excellent collections of natural products available for exploration', according to the report.
Professor Robert Hider, head of biomedical sciences at King's College London, said that a new TCM and natural medicine institute in the UK would allow for the exchange of information between the two countries, fostering networks in both pharmaceutical science and natural medicine and benefiting industry, healthcare and academia.
Increasing the flow of information and level of scientific research would also protect the public from unsafe herbal remedies, with the proposed EC directive on 'Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products' and new regulations for Herbal Medicine Practitioners expected to further improve the reputation for safety of natural medicines.
However some of those participating in the mission called for Chinese medicine in the UK to move closer to pharmaceutical standards. "There's an opportunity to make money but there's a very serious risk because you are dealing with medically functional products," Dr Zudong Liu, a medicinal chemist and managing director of Great Chinese Herbal Medicine (UK) told the Guardian newspaper. "Any medically functional products will have some instance of toxicity."
Professor Hider added that Chinese medicines must not go on being marketed as foods but "need to be properly controlled and administered through licensed pharmacies".
For further information on the report, contact King's College London.