Bile extracted from the gall bladders of Asiatic black bears has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a wide range of ailments. The availability of overseas-made synthetic substitutes has made little difference, despite pressure from animal rights groups and growing awareness of animal welfare among mainlanders. That is regrettable, because the extraction of the bile through permanently open wounds prone to infection must involve cruel suffering and does nothing for modern China's image. It is good news, therefore, that the nation's largest manufacturer of bear bile product, Shanghai's Kai Bao Pharmaceuticals, is looking at the development and testing of homegrown synthetic alternatives.
Governments do not often underwrite research that could make a company a lot of money, but that, too, is welcome in this case. Kai Bao says the central government will provide a 5.3 million yuan (HK$6.6 million) subsidy, to be followed by a six million yuan investment by the regional government, representing in total nearly a yuan-for-yuan matching grant for the company's investment of 12 million yuan. The company, which accounts for half the 30 tonnes of bear bile produced in China annually, aims to develop an equivalent using poultry bile and "biotransformation" technology. It says the project will provide quality-controlled raw material for developing new drugs. It will also help protect the endangered Asiatic black bear. According to Jill Robinson of Animal Asia Foundation, public health also stands to benefit because bile taken from sick and dying bears often contains impurities and biological contaminants. State support follows the foundation's lobbying of the government since the 1990s and collaboration with the Ministry for Science and Technology.
Hong Kong Chinese Herbalists Association president Kwan Chi-yee says bear bile is being used less and less though it is still prevalent in old medicinal recipes. Hopefully the development of a homegrown alternative will overcome resistance by practitioners and consumers.