Di­ag­nos­ing the health ben­e­fits of na­ture’s bounty

Sci­en­tist’s jour­ney of dis­cov­ery takes her into the lush high­lands and low­lands of Yun­nan to un­cover the med­i­cal se­crets of eth­nic groups and share them with the world


For more than three decades, Zhu Zhaoyun has been study­ing herbs, plants and the bounty of na­ture, to pro­mote the medicine and med­i­cal knowl­edge of eth­nic groups in South­west China’s Yun­nan prov­ince.

Both far-flung moun­tains and labs are the bat­tle­field for the 64-year-old se­nior en­gi­neer, who is now the di­rec­tor of the Yun­nan In­sti­tute of Ma­te­ria Med­ica and the re­search and de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor of the listed phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany Yun­nan Bai Yao Group.

For her out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to this field of medicine, Zhu was re­warded 3 mil­lion yuan ($476,190) by the provin­cial govern­ment of Yun­nan in 2015. Be­fore that, she also re­ceived first prize at the Na­tional Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Progress Awards and won a na­tional model worker award in 2012.

In June 1982, Zhu be­came a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party of China when she was study­ing at the Yun­nan Univer­sity of Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, she com­pleted a sur­vey of TCM re­sources in the Dali Bai au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture where she worked as a tech­ni­cian at the Dali phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal fac­tory.

In 1999, the Yun­nan In­sti­tute of Ma­te­ria Med­ica was set to be over­hauled into a self-fi­nanced Sta­te­owned en­ter­prise from a pub­lic in­sti­tute pre­vi­ously funded by the govern­ment. Zhu, then 45, was ap­pointed the in­sti­tute’s di­rec­tor, a de­ci­sion that changed her life.

Dif­fi­cult start

The in­sti­tute, one of the 22 re­search in­sti­tutes to be over­hauled and thereby re­ceive no more fis­cal sup­port from the govern­ment in 2000, was in des­per­ate need for new medicines, re­searchers and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. Many em­ploy­ees lost hope in the in­sti­tute’s fu­ture. At this un­cer­tain time, Zhu took the lead in shoul­der­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­vive the in­sti­tute’s for­tunes.

Zhu still re­mem­bers what the in­sti­tute was like when she first ar­rived. “In­side the build­ing were in­ter­twined spi­der webs and rats jumped out of a drawer when I opened one in the of­fice,” she said. “It was a dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment to con­duct ex­per­i­ments, not to men­tion re­search.”

Cui Tao, the in­sti­tute’s deputy di­rec­tor, de­scribed that year as “a state of poverty and blank­ness”. “Ev­ery­thing was started from scratch and the in­sti­tute had been weighed down with too many neg­a­tive things,” he said.

Wang Jingkun, ex­ec­u­tive deputy di­rec­tor of the in­sti­tute, de­picted Zhu as an ex­am­ple of be­ing both prag­matic and hard­work­ing.

To get funds to restart re­search and the de­vel­op­ment of new medicines, Zhu be­gan ask­ing for help from every de­part­ment she could think of. On many oc­ca­sions she was turned down but there was no time to linger on the em­bar­rass­ment.

How­ever, her per­sis­tence fi­nally paid off when she was granted more than 1 mil­lion yuan to ren­o­vate the in­sti­tute’s labs. Her jour­ney to pro­duce new eth­nic medicines could fi­nally start.

Sur­vey and in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion

Yun­nan is known for its bio­di­ver­sity with its moun­tains, ris­ing more than 5,000 me­ters, and lush plains.

“Moun­tain­ous ar­eas ac­count for 94 per­cent of Yun­nan’s land. If we can de­velop new medicines, herb plant­ing in ru­ral ar­eas can be strength­ened. In this sense, the lo­cal econ­omy can get a boost when our medicines are sold all over the world,” Zhu said.

How­ever, eth­nic medicines are not well-known in the out­side world. But the knowl­edge and ex­per­tise be­hind

them are deeply rooted in lo­cal cul­ture and should be cher­ished as unique and pre­cious re­sources, Zhu said in one of her books The In­no­va­tive De­vel­op­ment for Eth­ni­cal Medicines.

“Many fine medicines cre­ated by China’s eth­nic groups have not been de­vel­oped and my re­spon­si­bil­ity is to pro­mote them,” she said. “We also want to bring them to the global mar­ket as well.”

In­no­va­tion has been one of her pri­or­i­ties since she led a team, for the first time, to com­plete a wide-rang­ing sur­vey on Yun­nan’s nat­u­ral medicines.

Zhu’s team col­lected more than 80,000 sam­ples for more than 10,000 medic­i­nal sub­stances. About 160,000 pic­tures were taken to record orig­i­nal con­di­tions.

She also chaired the com­pi­la­tion of the nine-chap­ter Il­lus­tra­tion on Yun­nan’s Nat­u­ral Medicines and other two books on medicine, to sup­port the pro­tec­tion, re­search and de­vel­op­ment of such medicines. As the first au­thor, Zhu was picked by the cen­tral govern­ment for the 2012 Na­tional Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Progress Award.

Based on the sur­veys, the in­sti­tute ac­cel­er­ated the in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of eth­nic medicines. Zhu and her team com­pared thou­sands of pre­scrip­tions and tri­aled medic­i­nal ma­te­ri­als to make a slew of Yi-eth­nic-group medicines. Five of them were ap­proved and patents were granted to six medicines.

Over the decades, the in­sti­tute’s re­searchers have left their foot­prints all over the prov­ince as they vis­ited eth­nic doc­tors and trans­lated med­i­cal books. The ef­forts re­sulted in three data­bases to record more than 4,000 medicines.

“My team has found how to de­velop eth­nic medicine mainly in three key steps; re­source sur­veys, stan­dard­ized re­search and then in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion,” she said.

Recog­ni­tion and con­fi­dence

In 2012, the Yun­nan In­sti­tute of Ma­te­ria Med­ica was merged into the Yun­nan Bai Yao Group, a listed com­pany that had 2.6 bil­lion yuan in net profit in the third quar­ter last year, an in­crease of 10 per­cent com­pared with the same pe­riod in 2016. For Zhu, the merger will pro­vide her team with bet­ter sup­port in tech­nol­ogy and funds to pro­duce more medicines.

The in­sti­tute has 10 re­search de­part­ments, in­clud­ing one specif­i­cally for nat­u­ral medicine re­search. A sys­tem­atic chain of re­search and de­vel­op­ment has been built with world-lead­ing hard­ware.

In Jan­uary last year, Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang vis­ited the Yun­nan Bai Yao Group in the provin­cial cap­i­tal Kun­ming. As the com­pany’s chief sci­en­tist, Zhu was the one to in­tro­duce The Il­lus­tra­tion on Yun­nan’s Nat­u­ral Medicines to the pre­mier.

“The pre­mier told us that nat­u­ral medicines be­long to eth­nic groups and the world, so the health­care in­dus­try should be pro­moted to be big­ger and stronger. Orig­i­nat­ing in China, nat­u­ral medicines should go glob­ally,” Zhu re­called. “I will make more con­certed ef­forts in study and re­search to for­mu­late higher-qual­ity medicines and bring Yun­nan’s indige­nous medicine to the rest of the world.”

In Oc­to­ber, Zhu at­tended the 19th CPC Na­tional Congress as a mem­ber of the Yun­nan del­e­ga­tion, a recog­ni­tion of her achieve­ments in the field of eth­nic medicine and this gave her con­fi­dence to con­tinue her course.

“As a Party congress del­e­gate, I also want to make con­tri­bu­tions to lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment by in­te­grat­ing my re­search with the poverty al­le­vi­a­tion cam­paign,” Zhu added.

Con­tact the writ­ers at huy­ongqi@chi­nadaily.com.cn


Zhu Zhaoyun, cen­ter, and her stu­dents sur­vey plants in Fu­gong county in the Nu­jiang Lisu au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture in June, 2007.


Zhu Zhaoyun asks lo­cal res­di­ents about eth­nic medicines in the Dali Bai au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture in April 2010.


Zhu Zhaoyun checks sam­ples at the Yun­nan In­sti­tute of Ma­te­ria Med­ica in 2015.

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