Hong Kong's Boom in Chinese Medicine Research


With the recent boost in the popularity of herbal products, Chinese medicine (CM) has become increasingly accepted and used as a form of alternative medicine or dietary supplement worldwide. In Hong Kong, CM has been identified by the government of Hong Kong Special Administration Region (HKSAR) as a promising field for industrial development to enhance local economic growth. Indeed, the chief executive of HKSAR, Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, announced in his 1998 Policy Address an initiative intended to develop Hong Kong into the ?international centre for Chinese medicine.? Hwa?s announcement was given some substance in 1999, when the Innovation and Technology Commission created a 10-year roadmap for the development of this centre.

Although Hong Kong has a long history of using CM, the current status, vis-à-vis the manufacturing, marketing, and often-exaggerated claims in the product labels of Chinese medicines, is far from satisfactory. There were no government regulations for the manufacture and practice of CM before the Legislative Council passed the Chinese Medicine Ordinance in 1999. And registration and transitional arrangements for CM practitioners were approved only in 2000, at which point 7500 promptly registered. However, the Regulations for Chinese Medicine will be implemented only next year.

In the past 5 years, both local and overseas enterprises have shown an increased interest in investing in CM-related businesses. Similarly, in the academic sector, several local tertiary institutions have been actively leading CM research in the region. Currently, CM research, which encompasses basic science and clinical trials, is booming in the tertiary institutions of Hong Kong.

Financial Support for CM Research

Under the HKSAR government, financial supports for CM research come mainly from two major funding organisations, the Research Grant Council which gives out grants for fundamental scientific research projects, including CM research, and the Industry Department, which, under the auspices of the Innovation and Technology Commission, disburses the Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF) to support applied scientific research. This newly established fund has a range of programmes that support research and development (R&D) undertaken by universities, industrial labs, or university-industry collaborations. From 1995 to 2000, about HK$112 million of ITF funding has been committed to support 17 CM-related projects, mainly for building state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructures for CM research. Since 2000, another 18 CM-related R&D projects have been funded to the tune of an additional HK$86 million.

In addition, in May 2001 the HKSAR government set up an institute of Chinese medicine to strengthen the scientific and technological base of CM and to facilitate the commercialisation of CM-based products. The institute is named the Hong Kong Jockey Club Institute of Chinese Medicine Ltd. in acknowledgement of a generous donation of HK$500 million by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. This recently developed institute provides yet another funding source for CM R&D.

CM Research in Hong Kong Universities

Support by the SAR government has enabled six local tertiary institutions--the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU), the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), and the University of Hong Kong (HKU)--to acquire state-of-the-art facilities and build up capabilities in CM R&D. The intention is to focus on five main areas: quality control of CM materials, analytical characterisation, preclinical development, manufacturing process, and clinical trials.

To date, three Hong Kong universities have played strategic roles in CM R&D. CUHK was the first local university to conduct CM research. Established in the late 1970s, the Chinese Medicinal Material Research Centre at CUHK has been the pioneer for local CM research for almost 3 decades. In response to the changing trends in medical care and the local need for the development of CM, the centre was expanded in January 2000 to form the Institute of Chinese Medicine. Adopting the philosophy of the ?efficacy-based approach? for CM R&D, the institute brings together diverse expertise for its five core divisions specialising in the standardisation and safety of CM; drug development; information; public and general education; and clinical trials. With different funding supports, more than 30 nonclinical CM research projects, and about 16 CM clinical trial projects are currently in progress at CUHK.

At HKBU, the Institute for the Advancement of Chinese Medicine was set up in 1997 for the modernisation of CM. After the School of Chinese Medicine (SCM) was established in 1999, this institute became the Research and Development Division of SCM. The CM research at SCM involves quality assurance, R&D in bioactivity and toxicity, database development, and product development for CM materials. The Research and Development Division also offers consultancy, testing services, and strategic partnerships with local (Hong Kong), national (Mainland China), and international enterprises for the development of CM-related products.

Supported by the Innovation and Technology Commission, the Traditional Chinese Medicine Centre under the Biotechnology Research Institute at HKUST has been operational for several years. This centre provides supporting documentation on efficacy and safety, and it also undertakes biological assays to screen CM and botanical products for therapeutically active ingredients. In addition, the centre develops novel methods for CM standardisation to enhance its acceptance and commercial profitability. A library of regulatory documents and literature, as well as a database of scientific information on medicinal ingredients, is also available. The centre's Reformulation and Pharmaceutics Group currently conducts studies on reformulation of CM products to improve their taste, smell, and appearance, and also to improve their stability and deliverability. Three major ITF-supported CM research projects are currently performed in the centre: building up chemical libraries based on compounds of CM origin, establishing a high-throughput screening centre for CM, and developing CM-based products.

Hong Kong?s other three universities also play important roles in local CM R&D. Researchers in various departments in these three universities, and in the School of Traditional Chinese Medicine at HKU, the Research Centre for Modern Chinese Medicine at HKPU, and the Jacobson Research Laboratory for Botanical Drugs at CityU, have in the past few years been awarded major Research Grant Council and ITF grants.

In September 2001, the University Grants Committee announced a fund of HK$25 million for the Areas of Excellence project of ?Chinese Medicine Research and Future Development? coordinated by CUHK and in collaborations with CityU, HKPU, and HKUST. Between them, five CM-related priority projects are conducted. These include projects on antiviral preparation for hepatitis; treatment/maintenance for childhood asthma; limb salvage for diabetic foot ulcers; treatment of women?s ailments; and health-promoting tonics for cardiac diseases.

Education and Training in CM

The development of CM in Hong Kong has been accompanied by rapid development in formal tertiary education. In January 1997, HKBU obtained the University Grants Committee's (UGC's) approval to introduce a full-time B.Sc. degree course in CM on a pilot basis, starting in the 1998-99 academic year. Subsequently, CUHK also received approval to introduce a full-time B.Sc. degree programme in CM, starting the following year. More recently, HKBU launched the first full-time Bachelor of Pharmacy in CM programme.

Moreover, UGC has recently approved a combined programme of Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery/Bachelor of Traditional Chinese Medicine to be organised by HKU starting in the 2001-02 academic year. This 7-year, full-time programme will produce medical graduates with a sound knowledge of both Chinese and Western medicines to meet the global need for the development of an integrative medicine based on modern scientific concepts.

Currently, three local universities--HKBU, CUHK, and HKU--are offering B.Sc. degrees in CM with a combined annual intake of 60 students. In addition, all six UGC-supported universities offer postgraduate M.Phil. and Ph.D. training in CM research. The graduates from all these programmes will provide the much-needed staffing for the future development of CM in Hong Kong.

Future Prospects

The full support and encouragement of the HKSAR government has enabled university researchers and industries to consolidate their capabilities and to make significant progress on CM R&D in the last few years. Hong Kong's unique position and relationship with mainland China allows it to leverage the rich pool of resources for CM research and applications in the mainland. There have been an increasing number of collaborative CM R&D projects between Hong Kong and mainland researchers. Thousands of CM research papers have been published internationally, several national and international patents for CM R&D have been granted, and various CM-derived products have been developed and marketed in Hong Kong and Mainland China.

Therefore, in order to fulfil the 10-year roadmap for Hong Kong to become an international centre for CM, researchers and scientists in academia and in the CM industry face a challenging and golden opportunity to develop a global market and international reputation not only for the manufacturing and trading of CM, but also for the research and training activities that underpin the modernisation of CM.

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