Tue, Sep 30, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Herbs key for Taiwan's biotech sector

ANCIENT REMEDIES Analysts say that the nation's biotechnology companies could profit from pharmaceuticals developed using traditional Chinese herbal medicines

By Bill Heaney  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taiwan's biotechnology industry is poised to cash in on drugs developed from traditional Chinese herbal remedies, experts said yesterday.

"In Taiwan, we are doing good research in Chinese herbal rem-edies, but now we need to commercialize," Winston Town (湯竣鈞), chief operating officer of herbal drug developer Cathay Biotech Co (中華公明生物科技), told the Taipei Times yesterday.

In order to turn research investments into big bucks, companies have to prove scientifically that Chinese herbal remedies work, and the only way to do that is to present them for approval to regulatory authorities in the US, Europe and Japan, Town said.

Taiwan is banking on biotechnology and other advanced industries to replace manufacturing that has now moved to low-cost China.

In May of last year, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) pledged NT$52 billion over five years for biotechnology research. But to date, most start-ups have concentrated on producing made-to-order drugs for global pharmaceutical companies.

Exploiting the nation's cultural heritage could help biotech companies to produce their own uniquely Chinese drugs.

"Traditional Chinese medicine offers excellent opportunities for Taiwanese biotechnology companies," said Jerry Chen (陳啟祥), director of the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries Programs Office under the Ministry for Economic Affairs.

Only last Friday Chen's office hosted a business opportunities forum for companies interested in developing drugs from Chinese herbs, and over 100 people attended, Chen said.

The government has funded three research centers to look specifically at herb-based drugs, the Development Center for Biotechnology in Taipei, the Pharmaceutical Industry Technology and Development Center in Taipei County and the Biomedical Engineering Center at the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Hsinchu.

But research is not enough.

"There is a huge amount of potential for Taiwanese companies through herbal medicine," said David Silver, director of Biotech-east.com, a Web site that promotes Taiwan's biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. "But there are problems with patentability and regulations."

Companies cannot claim a patent on naturally occurring plants, but they can patent an effective chemical compound extracted from a plant that they have isolated, or present a mixture of herbs to regulatory authorities in the US, Europe and Japan and ask for approval.

To do this, they need to have carried out quality control tests and be able to guarantee consistent dosages, Silver said.

Isolating one compound in an herb is a very difficult process that involves a lot of computing power and time, Silver said, but it is very lucrative if successful. Presenting an herbal mix for approval is much simpler, and is now possible after US Food and Drug Administration rules were changed last year.

That is exactly what Cathay is doing with a mixture of 15 different Chinese herbs that it claims from its own preliminary trials can treat sufferers of Hepatitis B and HIV.

On the strength of this research, Cathay submitted an application to the FDA for its multi-herb treatment and had it accepted, Town said yesterday.

Town expects the second phase of clinical trials to be completed and approved within 12 months. After that, Cathay can sell licenses for its treatment to global pharmaceutical companies who have the resources to complete the third and final phase of trials before marketing the drug globally.

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