Last year the events that the BPS arranged at the IUPHAR Congress in Beijing to celebrate its 75th Anniversary attracted much interest and favourable comment, and undoubtedly succeeded in raising awareness internationally of the Society and its journals. Pharmacology in China, like so much else, is developing with extraordinary speed and energy, and our Chinese hosts in 2006 were keen to strengthen links with the BPS and its journals. To follow up on this promising start, the BPS decided to send a small delegation to visit some of the major centres of research and teaching in China, and to discuss how to bring this about. The plans were laid, and in the last two weeks of May, four of us — Graeme Henderson (representing the BPS), Jeff Aronson (representing BJCP), and Humphrey Rang (representing BJP), ably assisted by Anna Muir, set out for Beijing, laden with posters, explanatory booklets (in English and Mandarin), books and a range of other gifts, prepared to blow the trumpet for the Society.
Our journey took us to nine medical schools and research institutes in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. A full account of where we went appears on the homepage of the Society’s website.
Professor Du and colleagues at the Beijing Institute of Materia Medica
Everywhere we received a royal welcome, and the sessions at which we presented information about the BPS and the journals were well attended and attracted a lot of interesting questions. Our main theme was that the Society and its journals are international in their scope and outlook, and that we are keen to encourage the participation of Chinese pharmacologists as members, authors, and editors. We also gave various scientific talks, and often heard presentations from our hosts about their institutions and research programmes. By the end of two weeks, our talks were almost capable of giving themselves—and maybe sometimes sounded as though they were indeed doing so. We became adept at handling chopsticks and coping with Lazy Susan dinner tables, exchanging gifts, and posing for photographs.
We learned a great deal from this visit. The rate of development in the major East Coast cities that we visited was a real eye-opener. The urban infrastructure of airports, railways, hospitals, and university buildings, was everywhere sleek, modern, efficient, and thronged with people. Much of this development has happened in the last decade. Glimpses from the train window show a very different picture of life outside the main cities, and a massive population movement from rural poverty to urban prosperity is a real problem.
Jeff Aronson speaking at Guangdong Provincial People's Hospital
Each of the cities that we visited housed several – often 12 or more – Medical Universities, with associated hospitals, tainable, the spirit of optimism within the biomedical science community is unmistakable. Many excellent Chinese scientists are choosing to return to take up senior positions after spending several years in the West, and are exerting a strong influence on research and the training of future generations. Matters of concern that have previously hindered scientific contacts with China, including recognition of patent protection for pharmaceuticals, uncertain ethical standards, a lack of control of clinical trials and animal procedures, and a lack of regulatory control over the introduction of new medicines, are being addressed with some urgency, and new procedures are being introduced that are broadly in line with Western standards. A relaxation of travel restrictions is making it easier for Chinese scientists to work and attend meetings abroad. These changes, coupled with the development of an impressive Science Park in Shanghai, where a number of excellent biomedical research institutes and biotechnology companies are situated, are encouraging several international pharmaceutical companies to set up research facilities in the area.
Dinner with the Chinese Pharmacological Society
Despite the westernized surface that we saw, not everything has changed. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which owes nothing to science, is still very actively taught and practiced, and most medical schools and hospitals run independent courses and clinics in parallel. Active efforts are being made to build bridges, mainly by seeking to analyse the constituents and pharmacological properties of traditional herbal preparations. However, even although this occasionally yields results (as with artemesinin, for example), it is hard to see how the fundamental cultural divide between TCM and science can be bridged.
In contrast to the rapid progress being made in basic pharmacology, clinical pharmacology in
China is lagging somewhat. Excellent studies are being carried out on pharmacokinetics, drug metabolism, and drug interactions, but little on pharmacodynamics. Most clinical service in drug therapy is provided by clinical pharmacists, who are well informed and keen to participate, but have difficulty in establishing themselves as credible members of the clinical team in the presence of physicians.
Medically qualified clinical pharmacologists mostly do not practice clinical medicine, and the discipline as we know it in the West is almost non existent at present. Nevertheless, high-class phase I units are common, although the work that they do seems to be mainly concerned with repeating early development studies of standard drugs in order to satisfy the Chinese regulatory authorities. This should change as international pharmaceutical companies become more aware of the potential use of such units for more innovative developmental work.
We were left with no doubt that, for the BPS, building bridges with
China , which will surely become one of the major centres of research and innovation within a decade or two, is an important task. Our visit was just a start, and the BPS has established a small working group to discuss and plan with our Chinese colleagues further initiatives, such as joint meetings, teaching workshops, exchange visits, and research collaborations. We should like to hear from BPS members who already have, or are planning, interactions with Chinese scientists.