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TCM advancing a HIV scourge
By JIA HEPENG (China Business Weekly staff)
Updated: 2004-11-15 08:45

Chinese drugmakers are competing to develop a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) against HIV/AIDS, although hurdles remain before they can mass produce it.

On October 31, a TCM called Ke'aite, to treat AIDS, was reported to have passed the first stage of clinical trials and been approved by the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) to launch the second stage of clinical trials.

On the same day, a TCM prescription to treat AIDS was reported to be ranked as a major science innovation by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The prescription, developed by the Chinese Academy of TCM (CATCM), is named CATCM-II.

They are only two of the recent achievements by Chinese researchers and drugmakers in their research to develop TCM to fight AIDS, caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

In April, the first licence for TCM to help treat HIV/AIDS was authorized to a medicine called Tang Herbal Tablet.

One month before the approval, SH - another TCM theories-based herbal medicine invented by Chinese researchers in Kunming, Yunnan Province - was approved by Thailand's drug authorities as a new drug.

"The booming picture illustrates that TCM has great potential to deal with HIV/AIDS," said Wei Jian'an, deputy director of the Centre of HIV/AIDS Treatment under CATCM.

Since the early 1990s, Wei has been involved in treating HIV/AIDS by a Chinese medical team sent to Tanzania.

Although as a virus, HIV/AIDS is a new type of disease, its symptoms - including cough, headache, nausea and diarrhea - are not new. TCM theories are based on the treatment of the symptoms instead of killing the bacteria or the virus, so they can be developed to treat AIDS, Wei told China Business Weekly.

Wei also chaired a programme - launched by the State Administration of TCM - to offer free TCM-based treatments to AIDS patients. So far, the programme covers 2,300 patients in five provinces.

The Ministry of Health estimated that there were 840,000 HIV/AIDS patients in China until last year. Experts warn that without effective control measures, the number of HIV carriers may exceed 10 million by 2010.

Jin Lu, executive director at Hong Kong-based Golden Meditech Co Ltd, the developer of Tang Herbal Tablet, said the biggest advantage of TCM to treat AIDS is its low cost.

The cost of using Tang Herbal Tablet to treat AIDS will not surpass 3,000 yuan (US$362.32) per year, and it could be further lowered by reducing production costs, Jin told China Business Weekly.

However, using generic chemical medicines produced by Chinese drugmakers to perform the cocktail therapy will cost about 10,000 yuan per year (US$1,210), including drugs and necessary inspections.

Cocktail therapies - using a combination of different drugs and antibiotics - can control HIV and lengthen AIDS patients' lives.

Wei said that the commonly-used cocktail therapy has very strict requirements as when treatment should begin. If it is too early, the virus might develop strong drug-resistance, but if it is too late, the hope of maintaining AIDS patients' lives is very small.

But it is often difficult for AIDS patients to detect their disease at a proper time, therefore many of them lose the best chance of treating it. TCM prescription, however, can be used at any time of the disease's development, Wei said.

Wei and other TCM researchers also say that TCM so far performs better in terms of improving patients' immunology rather than directly killing the virus.

David Ho at the New York-based Rockefeller University, the inventor of the cocktail therapy, told China Business Weekly that TCM's side effects when treating AIDS might be less than those of chemical medicines, but there is no proper method to evaluate this.

But Luo Shide, a professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and inventor of the AIDS drug SH, said TCMs cannot kill the virus partly because many vital elements of the ingredients are lost due to the traditional processing method.

Luo's method to develop SH is based on the combination of accurate purification of the pharmaceutical plants and TCM theories to adjust the condition of AIDS patients.

Another challenge is that using TCM to treat AIDS remains poorly regulated. A Web search finds dozens of websites claiming to use some special TCM prescriptions to cure AIDS. Even Ke'aite, which is still undergoing clinical trials, can be bought online.

Wei admitted that this is because TCM still lacks standardization, meaning that many people can claim to cure AIDS, although they do not have sufficient scientific proof.

"To solve the problem, there should be some official indices to evaluate the true effect of TCM," Wei said.

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