Making Traditional Chinese Medicine From Meat Grown In The Laboratory | Global Ideas | DW


Every month, Kala Wan, a teacher from Hong Kong, simmers a packet of herbs, donkey skin gelatin and velvet deer antler for 75 minutes, until she has a dark soup and trouble. Pinching her nose, she swallowed it quickly.

“Donkey skin gelatin and velvet antler can nourish the blood and improve my health,” said the 27-year-old, adding that she tends to take doses during her period.

Wan’s doctor, who supplies the ingredients for his monthly infusion, is one of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners who prescribe treatments – for everything from colds to cancer – to many Hong Kong residents.

Other TMC remedies like acupuncture are popular around the world, although their effectiveness is in question.

TCM includes a wide range of practices, such as acupuncture, diet, and exercise. These treatments aim to rebalance the energy flows, called “Qi”, in the human body. The principles are not recognized by mainstream Western science, and there is little factual research on the effectiveness of TCM. Yet the global TCM market was worth $ 434 billion (€ 374 billion) in 2020, according to the Chinese state newspaper China daily.

TCM remedies like acupuncture are popular in many parts of the world. And while most pressure point and needle skeptics would at least agree that such treatments are harmless enough, other aspects of TCM are much more controversial.

About 12% of the drugs prescribed by traditional Chinese practitioners are derived from animals. Those that are often include body parts of endangered species – such as pangolin scales, rhino horn, tiger bone, and bear bile.

A table full of seized rhino horn

Trade in rhino horn is banned but demand remains high, and it is still used in TCM

The Chinese and US governments have banned the use of most of these products and their international trade is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Demand remains high, however. The annual trade in rhino horn amounts to some $ 230 million, according to the UN.

So what if there was a way to supply the market without touching these endangered species?

While lab-grown meat promises to keep the carnivores among us full without the cruelty and environmental fallout of the meat industry, scientists are therefore exploring whether the emerging industry could do the same for TCM.

The first step is to extract tiny tissue samples from living animals which are used to generate “induced pluripotent stem cells” (iPSC). These in turn are grown in the laboratory to create synthetic animal tissues. Biomedical scientist Kenneth Lee says it is now possible to generate iPSCs that can “be induced to differentiate into muscle cells, bone, cartilage, fat, etc.”

Lee is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. But he’s set to retire and move to Scotland to start his own cultured meat business. He says it should be possible to use stem cells to produce rhino horns and tiger claws without slaughter, as well as shark fins for soup and dog meat to supply the Chinese festival of the dog meat. “I think this is a legitimate process that can counter illegal animal trafficking,” Lee said.

Dried Traditional Chinese Medicine Jars

Glasses with dried seafood such as sea cucumber snails and seashells in a typical pharmacy for traditional Chinese medicine

The entrepreneur admitted that it will be several years before these products are on the market. But he is not the only one to work in this direction. Hong Kong lab-grown meat start-up Avant Meats is developing cultured swim bladders, known as fish mouths, as part of the range of lab-grown fish it hopes to launch by 2025 .

Could lab-grown TCM be a boon to smugglers?

“We want to fight against the environmental impact of the consumption of fish mouths in the ecosystem which has led to the [near] the extinction of several species, including bahaba, totoaba and vaquita, ”said Carrie Chan, CEO of Avant Meats.

Many Chinese believe that fish mouths have medicinal value, for example in the treatment of arthritis. Totoaba swim bladders, which are illegally caught off the Mexican coast, are worth some $ 46,000 per kilogram ($ 22,500 per pound) on the Chinese black market, according to the Porpoise Conservation Society.

Dead and eviscerated totoaba fish in Hong Kong

Totoaba fish mouths drying in baskets outside a dry goods store in Hong Kong

Not only is the totoaba critically endangered, but the nets designed to catch it are also a threat to the vaquita, a small porpoise that is the world’s most endangered cetacean.

But not everyone thinks TCM using lab-grown products will do much to protect these rare species.

“There is a strong possibility that laboratory-grown meat mimicking exotic and endangered animals will instead stimulate demand for raw meat and pose a challenge to law enforcement,” said Zhaomin Zhou, researcher. at the Southwest China Wildlife Conservation Laboratory at China West Normal. University.

Zhou mentions the case of synthetic ivory, which is supposed to replace real tusks. His research showed that unscrupulous traders were able to pass off genuine ivory as its synthetic counterpart in order to avoid law enforcement.

Cultured fish mouths served on vegetables

Hong Kong start-up Avant Meats grows fish mouths in the lab in hopes of reducing demand for real totoaba

When asked if cultivated fishmaws might increase demand for the real thing, Chan of Avant Meats said, “With or without this invention, these species of fish are endangered.”

“I don’t think the demand for this is driven by a single factor, and cultured products exist because we want people to switch from conventional meat to a more sustainable version,” she added.

Just like the real thing?

Others argue that if laboratory-grown alternatives could be produced cheaply and in sufficient quantity, they would lower the cost of animal-derived TCM, removing the economic incentive for poaching and smuggling.

A survey last year reported that 70% of Chinese consumers were ready to try lab-grown meat, and nearly 60% were ready to buy it. But will TCM consumers also be willing to accept something grown in a petri dish as interchangeable with something caught in the wild?

A mother Pangolin carries her calf on her back

Pangolin scales are highly sought after in traditional Chinese medicine – the pangolin is considered the most traded mammal in the world

TCM doctor Cristine Li said her Hong Kong clinic would consider using products from laboratory-grown animal tissues if available. “If artificial products can reach half the effectiveness of their real counterparts, that’s good news,” she said.

Given the scant scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these treatments, this raises the question of how to compare the two. But Wan, with her deer antler infusion, says she would be happy to trust her doctor’s judgment. “If my TCM practitioner believes in its effectiveness, I will use it,” Wan said. “I’m against animal slaughter, so I’m ready to give it a try.”

Yet she doubts the older generation will adopt cultivated TCM so easily: “My mother, for example, doesn’t trust such artificial medicines for animals. For her, it would be very difficult for them to imitate the function of real animal parts. His generation will probably stick to real animal drugs. “

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