Innovative Chinese Medicine Wins Nobel Prize

Chinese Herbs Evolves

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Chinese Herbal Medicine have captured the Western imagination – and a large segment of the supplement market! Time-tested natural remedies and ancient wisdom offer ways to preserve health and prevent disease, standing in contrast to the reactive approach of conventional Western medicine. A constant flow of research that shows the herbs work only reinforces the mystique.

Chinese Herbs, however, isn’t stuck in the past. In fact, true to its practice, it has embraced modern technology, science and conventional wisdom. The result has been an evolution of the ancient herbal practices into a new practice: Innovative Chinese Medicine, or ICM for short.

This evolution of herbal medicine has led to new, even more effective – and proven! – herbal remedies. Not that long ago, one earned its discoverer a Nobel prize. It’s also saved millions of lives.

A Nobel Prize Winning Innovation

In 2015, Tu Youyou won a joint Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on artemisinin, an herbal medicine-based drug which has saved the lives of countless malaria patients. Aside from her being the first Chinese national to win the Nobel prize in medicine, the win shows the potential for herbal medicine to provide functional and effective therapies to treat disease.

Artemisinin comes from a plant known as sweet wormwood (qinhao in Chinese; Artemisia annua in Latin). Tu and her team of scientists, who she says deserve credit too, first uncovered the plant’s potential in the 1970’s after reviewing ancient Chinese Herbal Medicine texts. By the 1990’s, the medicinal derivatives of the herb became a significant component in the treatment of malaria as other malarial medicines began to fail.

The herb’s impact on malaria patients cannot be understated. Death from malaria has dropped from 1-in-5 to 1-in-10 over the past decade.

With regard to the award and the herb’s success in treating malaria, Tu commented, “This shows that as a scientist we need an innovative spirit to discover new things.”[ii] Tu may be a scientist, but she carries on the spirit of Chinese herbal medicine practitioners.

Innovation Lies at the Heart of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Original Chinese Herbal Medicine texts like the Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine) are appropriately called ancient. They go back at least 2,500 years. While we can’t be certain how the original discoverers of the herbs that make up the Chinese pharmacopeia made their discoveries, we know they did.

We also know that they didn’t simply find an herb and use it alone. Combinations of herbs make up a large part of Chinese Herbal Medicine. Even the earliest practitioners of herbal medicine in China had an innovative spirit!

This spirit developed into an understanding of herbal synergism, unique ways herbs interact with each other. Chinese Herbal Medicine defines seven ways herbs may interact. It also describes four ways herbs can be used: as the primary active ingredient, to enhance the primary ingredient or ease symptoms of the illness, to lessen toxicity or to improve the bioavailability of the active herbs.

Innovative Chinese Medicine builds upon these principles. For example, through the application of quality standards and the use of science to ensure quality and potency of materials to the science and technology that allows for molecular research, scientists can now develop pharma-grade herbal medicines to target specific conditions. Through science and technology, the evolution of herbal medicine has accelerated.

Innovative Chinese Medicine Today – and into the Future

Spectroscopic technology and techniques make it possible for scientists today to quickly and effectively isolate active compounds in herbs. This reduces research time. It also saves time in the development of new, herb-based drugs.[iii]

Of course, there are many other techniques scientists are using at every step of testing and production in the development of pharma-grade herbal medicines. Artemisinin is not the only herb from tradition being used to target specific health conditions.

For example, Tasly US CEO Dr. Henry Sun, Ph.D gave a keynote address at the 2018 American College of Cardiology on a recent FDA-regulated study of a three-herb combination called T89. This herbal combination features Danshen, Notoginseng and Borneol. It was developed to help patients with chronic stable angina. Study results showed it improved the patients’ condition.

And artemisinin and T89 represent only two of the many recent discoveries based on herbal medicine now improving people’s health and lives around the world. Looking ahead, Innovative Chinese Medicine, as the evolution of nature-based Chinese Herbal Medicine, has access to almost inexhaustible resources in the form of nature-based therapies.

If the results so far are any indication, this offers great hope and potential for healthcare today and well into the future.


Wang R , Wang T, Zheng S, Shi D, Qiao S et al, (2016) Traditional Chinese Medicine – A Source of Innovative Drugs. Med Aromat Plants 5:e169. doi:10.4172/2167-0412.1000e169

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