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Technologies gain wide use in traditional medicine

By ZHENG YIRAN in Beijing and WANG JIAN in Nanchang | China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-30 09:05

Physicians sort traditional Chinese medicine at a hospital in Zhangye, Gansu province, on Oct 29. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Modern technologies are now widely used in traditional Chinese medicine tracing, production and decoction, boosting the rapid development of the TCM industry.

Chinese medicinal herb decocting used to be difficult. The decoction process was complicated, and mistakes in the process could damage the effectivity of the medicine.

Now, with the help of intelligent TCM pharmacy, the process is but a piece of the cake. Based on the characteristics of different Chinese herbs, the decocting machines can adjust the temperature and decocting time, avoiding nonstandard operation and safety risks.

The whole decoction process has realized intelligent monitoring. The decoction temperature, period and delivery, are all traceable.

"TCM has played an important role in COVID-19 prevention and clinical treatment. With favorable policies and advanced technologies applied, the TCM industry has bright prospects in the future," said Li Wei, an analyst at Beijing-based think tank EqualOcean Intelligence.

"At present, the TCM industry is confronted with challenges, such as poor herb quality, low manufacturing levels, imperfect circulation system and credibility problems. The introduction of technologies, including the internet of things, 5G, artificial intelligence and cloud computing, is key to helping solve the problems and increase efficiency. The deep integration of modern technologies and TCM makes the traditional industry shine, and offers more possibilities for TCM to play a better role," he said.

Data from the National Health Commission showed that between 2015 and 2019, visits to TCM institutions in China surged from 910 million to 1.16 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of 11.6 percent. However, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, the sales revenue of the TCM industry declined from 786.7 billion yuan ($123.2 billion) to 652 billion yuan during the same period.

In 2020, with new rules and regulations on drug going into effect, supervision on TCM manufacturing turned tighter. "To better develop the TCM industry, technologies such as internet, IoT and AI should be applied to empower the industrial chain of TCM," Li said.

Nanchang-based pharmaceutical company CR Jiangzhong set a great example of technology empowering TCM manufacturing.

At the company's intelligent manufacturing plant, robots had replaced most of the traditional human work. Even the carts to carry raw materials and finished products are automated guided vehicles. The 6,000-square-meter plant only needs five to eight workers, who operate the computers in the control center and take an occasional tour of inspection.

The company said the application of modern technology not only raised production efficiency, lowered the production period and costs, but also greatly enhanced product quality. The company has realized zero quality complaints for eight consecutive years.

Apart from the intelligent manufacturing plant, CR Jiangzhong applied near infrared technology in TCM material tracing. The technology can precisely identify the type of Chinese herbs, offering guarantees for subsequent production.

Specifically, during the process of transporting and storing Chinese herbs, the handheld near infrared device identifies the herbs' properties within three seconds. Before production, the device tests the herbs' moisture, grain size and component content. The device also monitors the whole production process. In this way, product quality is greatly increased and human work intensity is lowered.

Liu Wenjun, general manager of the research and development department at CR Jiangzhong, said: "Technologies such as near infrared technology help realize intelligent manufacturing. Through digital Chinese herb recognition and digital TCM production management, we can standardize our production criteria and product quality."

He said TCM is a complicated scientific system which is not fully explained yet. Modern technologies such as big data and AI offer diversified research methods to further explore TCM, while the application of metabolomics, genomics and transcriptomics made it possible to know TCM from a micro-level perspective.

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