16 Dec 2014
TCM's Long March Toward Scientific Endorsement Continues Apace
Hong Kong's 13th International Conference & Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine and Health Products showed that not all traditional Chinese medicine has to be strictly traditional, though it does have to be strictly verified.
Diana Lee could be considered as the new face of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). She's bright, attractive, a woman (obviously) and is shaking up TCM's rather fusty image – that of old men in rumpled white coats tucked away among rhinoceros horns and tiger appendages in untidy back-alley shops.
The International Conference & Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine and Health Products (ICMCM), recently held in Hong Kong, offered a window onto the new world of TCM. It's one that involves a more eco-conscious, scientific and modern approach to the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. It is singularly appropriate for a city that has become a gateway for the trade, as shown by the 8.5% increase in Hong Kong sales in the sector over the first six months of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013.
The expo also gave Lee a platform from which to promote her business during a seminar she delivered at the event, which was one of a number of talks scheduled on the high level programme. As General Manager of Top Global Creation Limited, she took the opportunity to introduce the Hong Kong company's Aculife electro-acupuncture device.
This "medical breakthrough" proved to be a sensation, with potential customers queuing up for a demonstration at the company's booth. Taking acupuncture into the 21st Century, the compact electrical device generates magnetic waves that can be directed over the hand to determine weak points in the body. Those waves cause a tingling sensation that is more intense if there is a health problem. The company's promotional literature promises the machine has no side effects and suggests "15 minutes daily use in order to stay healthy".
Traditional acupuncture dates back to the legendary Chinese ruler Shennong, who lived some 5,000 years ago. It involves inserting extremely thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body – known as the meridians – thereby correcting imbalances in the elemental life force called qi. Aculife's high-tech update on that ancient art has, significantly, gained approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as its European counterparts.
For Lee, winning such approvals and competing in the modern marketplace on equal terms with Western medicine is a crucial development. With the growth of consumer rights' protection and consumers themselves becoming savvier, official ratifications count for everything.
Lee says: "Today, everyone is health conscious. If you're not healthy then you're not going to be happy, even if you are rich. While Western medicine generally treats the symptoms of health problems, TCM's finest attribute is that prevention is the key, and it's better than a cure."
As for the scientific basis of acupuncture, this is still a matter of some debate. Lee believes it remains difficult for Westerners to understand, even though practitioners in the West are growing in number. Asians, she said, are more accepting because they have directly experienced the benefits of TCM. She says: "If it works, then you believe in it. Seeing is believing. It's like breathing. You know it's air, so you don't have to prove it."
Scientific acceptance is nevertheless something of the Holy Grail for TCM. While the efficacy of herbs and poultices may be widely recognised and credence given to the benefits of, for example, moxibustion – the burning of the dried mugwort plant on the body to facilititate healing – hard, empirical evidence is hard to come by.
That is where the Institute of Chinese Medicine (ICM) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong comes in. The institute's booth at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) was manned by a posse of bright, enthusiastic students all happy to extol the "unlimited blessings" TCM offers mankind, while at the same time supporting the idea of evidence based research (EBR).
Explaining their stance, Peter Zhou, an ICM Research Student, said: "Our aim is to provide scientific evidence for the use of TCM. We hope to provide drugs and medicines that are of demonstrable use to the public. We do not seek to compete with Western drug companies, that's not possible given their funding advantages, but we do think we can be complementary."
Zhou said part of the problem with traditional Chinese medicines is that they are formed from a mixture of natural compounds, rather than being synthesised and targetted. This means there can be toxicology concerns and testing must be rigorous. Successful marketable products which have arisen from conducting such clinical trials include hawthorn juice (for lowering cholesterol), a danshen gegen formula (for cardiovascular protection), a Rehmannia formula (for healing wounds) and a combined TCM and Western compound (for combatting allergic rhinitis).
Another exhibitor at the HKCEC, the Hong Kong Institute of Biotechnology Limited – established by the Council of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Jockey Club in 1988 – aims to develop TCM in tandem with biotechnology. Again, the idea is to apply scientific principles and develop commercial products.
There were also several Chinese mainland exhibitors, including representatives from the Taizhou Medical and High-Tech Development Zone in Jiangsu Province. They were keen to attract further investment and start-ups to what they referred to as "China Medical City" (CMC). Wu Xiaobo, CMC's Deputy Director, said more than 500 companies had already joined the party – both TCM enterprises and major Western drug companies, notably AstraZeneca.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Marketing and Sales Manager Eddie Ching said there were five TCM companies operating out of its premises. Most, he added, are involved in R&D – or "TCM for the 21st Century".
A more traditional approach to TCM is being taken by Dr Luo Yang Wei's Tai Sheng Tang Limited, which is based in Henan province. Dr Wei follows in the footsteps of a long line of family doctors, and his company's booth was adorned with rather grisly before-and-after photos of badly damaged limbs, graphically demonstrating the effectiveness of his "ancestral wet treatment".
Sales staff listed the advantages – low infection rates, less pain, no hospital stays, natural regeneration and lower costs – of the preparation over Western treatments, such as surgery. The case of a Russian hunter who literally shot himself in the foot and faced amputation was trotted out. Apparently, he was walking again after just two months of "Weishi" treatment.
While there were exhibitors from all over Asia and beyond – plus a number of Western buyers from the fast-developing alternative therapy and wellness sectors – there was clearly a focus on Chinese products and therapies. Stanley Vilma of Svetlana Inc, a buyer for the South American market who came to Hong Kong to source pharmaceutical and related products (such as milk powder), maintained that low costs were part of the appeal. He said: "The price factor is very important, and I'm basically looking for a good deal from Chinese sellers."
Apart from the Aculife device, massage treatment machines that bathe patients in UV light and novel nutritional supplements, one of the most popular attractions at the ICMCM proved to be the booth of Dr Rick Lau's Tai Wai Chiropractic Centre. Here therapists could be found manipulating bones, popping spines and twisting necks. Dr Lau, an engaging young US-trained chiropractor – whose mantras include "health starts with the spine" and "posture is a window on the spine" – spoke convincingly of how growing pains in adolescence could actually be an indication of future back problems, issues that could be easily remedied with early detection.
Slightly less well patronised was the Jinda Company's booth, though it still proved reasonably popular. A leading label manufacturer based in Hong Kong's Kowloon district, it offered a colourful array of dot-matrix holograms, scratch-off labels, and luminescent and colour change inks. Its sales staff pointed out how important anti-counterfeit measures were to the TCM industry in ensuring a brand's success.
That was as good a reminder as any that, if the TCM industry is to keep expanding, it has to guarantee both the authenticity and the efficacy of its products.
The 13th International Conference & Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine and Health Products (ICMCM) featured more than 130 exhibitors from 10 countries and took place from 14-16 August 2014, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong