IPR protection needed for Chinese herbal medicines


The extraordinary effects of Chinese herbal medicines have fueled foreign interest in launching research projects into the profitable and interesting field in recent years.

Xia Wen, director of the academic department of Guizhou Bailing Group Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd., was on alert during a dinner with some Korean friends who tried to get a line on herbal medicines from the Miao nationality.

Several years ago, a prescription for curing colds that had been passed down through generations of people of the Miao nationality went overseas and was eventually patented by foreign companies, Xia recalled.

Bailing Group, a privately-run, listed company based in southwest China's Guizhou province, focuses on the research and development of Miao medicines. The company sees an annual turnover of about 800 million yuan ($127 million).

As one of the four major production areas for Chinese medicine, Guizhou boasts more than 4,800 kinds of Chinese medicine, 28 of which are under national protection and account for 58.8 percent of all state-protected medicines in China.

Therefore, the pharmaceutical industry has developed rapidly and become a mainstay industry in Guizhou, which has been dubbed the "West Medicine Valley."

Statistics from the Guizhou Provincial Traditional Chinese Medicine Administrative Bureau show that about 1,000 herbal prescriptions from the Miao and Dong nationalities have been collected, but no more than 200 of them have been developed and put into production.

Meanwhile, some prescriptions have gradually disappeared, resulting in a huge loss for the country.

"Most of the Miao medicines are herbal, but research and development remains at a primary processing level," said Xia.

Chinese medicine companies have become aware of the need to apply intellectual property protection to their products since herbal medicines have attracted attention from foreign companies.

Bailing Group, Shenqi Group and Yibai Pharmaceutical Co.Ltd., the three major medicine companies in Guizhou, have been granted more than 200 patents to date.

"Patent protection has brought great profits to companies and accelerated their scientific and technological innovation. But vital information, such as the prescription and the ingredient list, has to be released at the same time," said Xia.

If foreign companies get the prescription or the ingredient of a herbal medicine with patent protection, they can imitate similar medicines without being blamed for patent infringement since herbal medicine can be synthesized in various ways.

Moreover, western innovations in medicine have encountered great difficulties in recent years, so more and more western countries have started to cast their eyes on Chinese herbal medicine, according to Hu Songyu, director of the Guizhou Miao Medicine Pharmaceutical Engineering Center.

After a prescription is granted a patent and its contents are made public, other countries could use the base of the prescription to develop new medicines by using advanced technology, Xia said.

Therefore, not all new medicine is suitable for patent application. For example, the ingredient list of Yunnan Baiyao, a white powder from Yunnan that is used to treat open wounds, is under state secret-recipe protection, according to Xia.

Herbal medicines can survive for hundreds of years, whereas western medicines can be replaced within two decades, Hu said.

Meanwhile, plentiful biological resources in Guizhou have provided numerous original materials for herbal medicine.

Xia Wen is involved in research on a new herbal medicine to treat menstrual cramps. Having applied for patent registrations at home and abroad, his company plans to promote the medicine in the global market.

"Why not use the Chinese herbal medicine to relieve the pains of foreign women?" said Xia.

As more and more Chinese herbal medicines have popped up in western markets, an increasing number of foreigners have started to seek information about the Miao medicines, Xia said.

In response to this growing popularity overseas, the Chinese government issued a regulation on the protection of biological species resources in 2007, aiming to bring the country's biological species under control and protect them from loss by 2015 as herbal medicines mainly come from these biological species.

However, experts have warned that foreign researchers could obtain herbal medicine information via research centers and with the help of advanced technology even if they can not obtain the species themselves.

"We have warned our staff, especially the researchers in Bailing Group, to protect the herbal medicine resources," said Xia.


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