GlaxoSmithKline opens research unit to study traditional Chinese medicine

GSK reportedly seeks to transform traditional Chinese medicine 'from an experience-based practice to evidence-based medicines through innovation and differentiation'

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LONDON—British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) hasdecided to take on what could be a monumental task: bringing Eastern- andWestern-style medicines together. As reported in Asian media outlets Sept. 10,such as Shanghai Daily and China Daily, GSK is opening a newresearch unit in China to explore traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
This is reportedly the first time that a globalBig Pharma has expressed deep interest in TCM and planned to carry outorganized research on TCM practices. According to GSK, this new unit—InnovativeTCM—will aim to "transform TCM from an experience-based practice toevidence-based medicines through innovation and differentiation."
"Traditional chinese medicine is awell-established system of medical practice developed through thousands ofyears of empirical testing and refinement of herbal mixtures, and reliesgenerally on clinical experience," said Zang Jingwu, senior vice president andhead of R&D China, as quoted in ChinaDaily. "Western medicines, on the other hand, are generally target-basedsmall molecules or biologics, and their approvals for clinical use are based onclinical evidence of safety and efficacy by staged clinical trials."
Jingwu notes that marketing TCM in many companiesthroughout the world is challenging in part because of difficulties inexplaining the mechanisms by which they work, in addition to challenges aroundextracting effective compounds from the complex formulas sometimes used in TCM.
Jingwu's R&D team in China has already movedfive new neurological medicines into clinical trials for GSK, and any TCM therapiesthat might make similar progress would be aimed not only at Chinese patientsand consumers but also globally, particularly in the American and Europeanmarkets. He sees products that would come out of this being differentiated fromestablished TCM remedies by touting the clinical data and evidence obtainedthrough more "Western" means.
"We don't simply renovate the production skills ofTCM, but conduct research from the very start—from finding effective compoundsto developing new drugs," Jingwu was quoted as saying in Shanghai Daily. He says the goal is to integrate existing TCMknowledge of disease and treatment with modern drug discovery technology andclinical trial methodology, and this will be aided by having the Innovative TCM unit work directly with academic TCM experts in China.
Whether modern drugs can be effectively createdfrom traditional remedies remains to be seen, but some are also waiting to seeif there are other motivations behind GSK's interest in TCM. As the blog TheTwenty-First Floor notes, this could be a true business decision, with GSK looking tocrack open a potentially profitable market and discover new therapies—alaudable goal that could be good for patient health as well as the corporatebottom line.
On the other hand, the blog noted, "It is alsopossible that the move is a political one designed to give GSK preferentialaccess to the Chinese medicine market, which is a hefty prize. One that GSKmight be keen to win after paying the largest settlement in U.S. history forhealthcare fraud."

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