In the United States a new drug can take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to research and develop. For developing countries this investment is prohibitive, which explains why more than 97 per cent of drugs produced in China are 'generic' versions of drugs developed elsewhere.
Lately, Chinese researchers developing new drugs have found a shortcut, writes Jia Hepeng. By identifying the active compounds in plants used in ancient traditional medicines, they are then able to develop new drugs from compounds they already know are effective.
The Chinese herb danshen, for instance, has been used for hundreds of years to treat a range of ailments including heart disease. Researchers have identified and isolated the active compounds and shown in clinical trials that they are indeed effective.
But this process is not always straightforward. Some remedies can use up to 20 of the thousands of plants used in traditional medicine. Even identifying the active compound in danshen took more than a decade. For medicines based on multiple plants, the challenge is greater.