Chinese Patent Medicine: Coming to a Pharmacy Near You?


A common form of Chinese herbal remedy – the patent medicine - is moving through rigorous FDA testing and may soon be available in the US for the first time.

Herbal medicine has been practiced in China for hundreds of years. And, in the last few decades, scientific research has begun to back up traditional Chinese herbalists’ claims that the herbs they’re using have beneficial effects. For example, doctors have studied ginseng’s ability to improve the immune system’s response to a flu vaccine. They found that patients who took ginseng four weeks before a flu shot were two-thirds less likely to contract a cold or the flu.

Chinese patent medicines are particularly popular: these are commonly used combinations of herbs that are ground up, mixed with honey, and made into small, spherical black pills. They’re called patent medicines not because they’re made by companies with exclusive rights to their formulas, but because their ingredient lists are standardized. Gan Mao Ling is a good example of a patent medicine: it’s used to treat colds and flu, and usually contains the same six herbal ingredients.

There are several risks of taking patent medicines. One is the possibility that they’re contaminated with heavy metals like lead or mercury: this could come from machinery at the factories where they’re made, or from soil contamination where they’re grown. Some patent medicines are also mixed with pharmaceutical drugs without this being indicated on their labels. This has happened not only when they’ve been manufactured in China, but also in the US.

So far, only one Chinese patent medicine – Compound Danshen Dripping Pill - has passed FDA Phase II trials and moved on to Phase III. If it passes this final stage of US medical testing, the company that makes it can request the FDA’s permission to market it in the US. Compound Danshen Dripping Pill is used for heart and circulation problems. Its ingredients include Chinese salvia, also known as danshen; ginger; panax notoginseng; and a synthetic version of borneol, an ingredient found in cardamom.

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