A significant portion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) utilizes marine biology resources. The category, described in classic TCM anthologies like “Shan Hai Jing,” “Shen Nong Ben Cao,” and “Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi” have been practiced for almost 2,000 years. However, modern technologies that identify, isolate, and exploit the active gradient from the marine plants and animals have remained scarce. Dating back to 1997, the Chinese government has recognized that outdated methodologies are unable to fully realize the potential of medical resources from TCM, and it has strengthened research funding and investment since that time. By 2010, the added industry output of the marine biopharmaceutical industry was CNY 9.5 billion ($1.48 billion), with an expected annual growth rate set at about 30% in the 12th Five-Year Plan period.
Not surprisingly, innovation capacity for marine-derived TCM is geographically concentrated - with Shanghai, Qingdao, Xiamen, and Guangzhou representing the four major regions for innovation. Currently, there are more than 10 Chinese institutes specializing in marine biopharmaceuticals. Among the more pioneering research institutions are Ocean University of China, the First Institute of Oceanography, SOA, the Institute of Oceanology, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Nevertheless, a few bottlenecks remain in China’s development of marine biopharmaceuticals.
The first and foremost bottleneck is technology. China’s marine biopharmaceutical industry relies on its general biopharmaceutical industry to exploit marine resources and produce medicines. Yet, general biopharmaceutical technology development lags in China, limiting growth in the marine biopharmaceutical sector. Given that the size of the sector is not large enough to attract private investors, most of the R&D funding has come from government plans, which need to increase before ensuring the set growth rate of 30% in the next few years.
Also, the development of the industry requires strong partnerships across the value chain, but basic research, product development, animal testing, and clinical trials lack the collective critical mass of corporate, governmental, investment, and academic stakeholders to drive and accelerate development. Although there is preliminary evidence of such partnerships, for example, China’s recently founded alliance on marine biotechnology innovation, more consortia and partnerships (client registration required) are expected to emerge to ensure the growth of the industry. Clients interested in the marine biopharmaceutical industry have an opportunity to stake an early position with the aforementioned leading research institutes and find technology partners in the four innovation bases mentioned. We’ll be seeking out briefings with the leading academics and technology developers to better define this path in the coming weeks and months.