Hong Kong-based Chi-Med -- a pharmaceutical firm that develops consumer health products from natural ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) -- said it will team with Merck to find potential cancer drugs among roughly 10,000 herbal TCM compounds. However, critics say the partnership will only serve to allow Merck to generate more profits from "pirated" natural plant chemicals sold as expensive pharmaceuticals.
Consumer health advocate Mike Adams, author of "Take Back Your Health Power," said Merck's partnership with Chi-Med would result in the company locating, copying and patenting chemicals found in Chinese herbs, then selling them as prescription drugs.
"When Chinese firms steal intellectual property from the United States, we call it piracy, but when drug companies acquire medical know-how from Chinese medicine, it's called research," Adams said. "But let's be clear here -- I don't believe Merck is about to start promoting Chinese herbal cures for anything.
"Merck is most likely looking for molecules it can identify, modify and patent as pharmaceuticals," he said. "If it finds anything that works, the medicines will likely be sold as Western drugs, not Chinese medicine, and the FDA will continue its assault on herbal medicine even as it approves drugs based on herbal medicine."
Ulrich Betz, head of strategic innovation and research portfolio management at Merck, said the company is eager to begin a "productive collaboration" with Chi-Med. "It will allow us to extend our interaction with the emerging Chinese pharmaceutical industry that builds on longstanding tradition and knowledge combined with modern scientific technology," he said.
Merck's collaboration is one of many attempts by Western pharmaceutical companies to increase their presence in China. Swiss drug firm Novartis recently announced plans to open a $100 million Western research and development facility in Shanghai.
However, Adams says rich Western pharmaceutical companies will take advantage of the generosity and cost-effectiveness of TCM therapies.
"In my opinion, this [collaboration] is nothing more than greedy corporations exploiting the generous, open-source nature of Chinese medicine," Adams said. "It is the Western world's piracy of Eastern wisdom, and it is only being done because drug companies have realized that Western-developed medicines are far more dangerous, and don't work nearly as well as Chinese medicine."