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Bear Bile Industry Expands on Unproven Health Benefits

02-28 15:17 Caijing
The positive health benefits of bear bile championed in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have never been proven through strict scientific testing.

By staff reporters Zuo Lin, Lu Wei, and Xu Jing, and intern reporter Tian Peng

The bear quickly enters the iron cage upon seeing food at one end. As it eats, a hollow iron tube about the size of a ballpoint pen is inserted into the bear’s stomach. About 100 ml of yellowish bile then flows from the tube into a container below. In less than three minutes, the bile extraction process is completed.

On Feb. 22, Fujian Guizhentang Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. (Guizhentang) was forced to make public its process for extracting bear bile for the first time. The nightmare for the company began on Feb. 1. Guizhentang, whose principal business is bear bile extraction, was discovered to be on the list of companies seeking approval for a public listing. The company’s IPO plans drew strong opposition from animal rights groups and netizens, who argue that Guizhentang’s practice of extracting bile from live bears is inhumane.

The bile extracted from bears has two primary uses: it can be made into powder or powder capsules and sold directly to consumers as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); or it can be used as a raw material in prepared Chinese medicine and sold to TCM enterprises. Meanwhile, there is a growing market bear bile tea, wine and other health products.

Nearly all claims of the effectiveness of bear bile for treating illness come from ancient records of Chinese medicine. Caijing searched for research papers in relevant international journals. But except for ursodeoxycholic acid, the efficacy of the numerous “active ingredients" in bear bile is not clearly defined nor is it recognized in modern medicine.

The most common medicinal application of bear bile is a TCM Tanreqing injection, the raw material demand for which makes up more than half of the bear bile powder market. Cao Chulin, who developed the injection, previously said that the active ingredients of bear bile powder injections are ursodeoxycholic acid and chenodeoxycholic acid. Also, a number of studies confirmed the above two ingredients are the principal components of bear bile application.

Ursodeoxycholic acid is not only an active ingredient in bear bile; it is also the most important index for assessing the quality of bear bile powder. Besides bears, ursodeoxycholic acid can also be found in chicken, cattle, and sheep bile. 

However, China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine President Fang Shuting stated Feb. 17 that the efficacy of bear bile (powder) lies in the synergistic effects of ursodeoxycholic acid and dozens of other ingredients, and so far no substitutes exist.

In 1983, the Ministry of Health approved a study on artificial bear bile. Since then, the research group has challenged the claim that bear bile powder is "irreplaceable."

Studies showed that the main active ingredient of natural bear bile is ursodeoxycholic sodium cholate; moreover, test results show the sodium cholate in artificial bear bile is equivalent to that of natural bear bile in “amount and effectiveness.”

In the State Food and Drug Administration's (SFDA) database, there are 49 batch numbers for domestically produced products containing ursodeoxycholic acid, as well as a total of nine kinds of bulk drugs and imported medicines whose main raw material is ursodeoxycholic acid. The acid mainly targets illnesses such as cholesterol gallstones and other liver ailments.

However, the Phase II clinical trials for artificial bear bile focused on acute tonsillitis and other diseases. The SFDA contends that the limited scope of diseases selected for artificial bear bile studies do not take into account all the “curative effects” of natural bear bile. The SFDA and the artificial bear bile research group have been at a stalemate on this point for nearly 30 years.

This stalemate has lead to the formation of various protections for bear bile producers. Caijing learned that when Guizhentang entered the bear farming industry in 1992, its vision was to become the world's largest “ecological breeding base for bears.”

An IPO is undoubtedly an important step in Guizhentang’s efforts to accomplish this goal.

Full article in Chinese: http://magazine.caijing.com.cn/2012-02-26/111715538.html

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