Cultivation of Tibetan medicine through innovation

Updated: 2016-09-20 13:26


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LHASA - Seed germinators and western medical equipment are no longer novelties in Tibetan medicine hospitals, as researchers and doctors become increasingly technologically adept.

Tashi Tsering with the Biological Research Institute of Tibetan Medicine (BRITM) at Lhasa's Men-Tsee-Khang -- a traditional Tibetan hospital founded in 1916 -- has been growing meconopsis aculeata under controlled conditions for six years.

A rare member of the poppy family, the flowering plant grows only at high altitude and is used in 257 traditional remedies, principally for liver complaints.
As global warming pushes the snowline upward, the plant's habitat has shifted from 3,000-4,000 meters above sea level to 5,000. This, coupled with growing demand, has resulted in even greater scarcity, according to Tashi Tsering.

Growing influence

Tashi Tsering and his team surveyed 37 counties in Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Tibet and Yunnan before their first attempt to cultivate the plant.
"We scored zero on our first try," he said. No seeds sprouted in 2011 at the test site in Lhasa, despite the light, temperature, moisture and soil having been meticulously controlled to simulate the natural habitat.

The planting season comes but once a year, and in the second year, the germination rate rose to 17 percent. In 2015, the team harvested their own seeds for the first time and this year almost 90 percent of them sprouted. Despite the achievement, it is too early to begin celebrations until technical assessment and lab tests confirm the reliability of the home-grown product.

Traditionally, Tibetan medical practitioners spent years learning to gather herbs, with instructions so sophisticated that they had to memorize which part of each herb to pick under which weather and seasonal conditions and at which time.

The BRITM has grown 27 endangered herbs in artificial conditions over the past decade and a new lab now houses a variety of equipment including germinators, climate incubators, soil testers and imaging systems.

"To meet the rising demand for Tibetan medicine, artificial cultivation of medicinal herbs is a must," said Tashi Tsering.

Coming down from the plateau

Tibetan medicine's influence is expanding beyond the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

For example, An'erning granules, a remedy for the common cold in children and approved by the State Food and Drug Administration, is a leading paediatric patent medicine nationwide.

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, considered incurable in western medicine, is claimed to be 94 percent successful in the Arura Hospital in Xining where Tibetan doctors use a holistic approach including medicated bathing, special diets and psychology.

Konchok Gyaltsen, honorary president of the hospital, believes that it is the unique combination of philosophy and herbalism that creates and maintains a healthy mind and body.

Dorje, director of the Qinghai Provincial Tibetan Medicine Research Institute, argues that Tibetan medicine was advanced even in ancient times, with Tibetan physicians performing brain and cataract surgery 1,000 years before their western counterparts. At the Qinghai Tibetan Culture Museum in Xining, dozens of surgical instruments used 1,300 years ago are on display.

Daindar, director of the Men-Tsee-Khang cardiology department, has practiced Tibetan medicine for 33 years and is a firm advocate of the cardiopulmonary function analyzer and other modern equipment to speed up diagnosis and treatment.

He said the hospital had accumulated a plethora of modern equipment over the past five years. Since 2014, the hospital has received 256 million yuan (about 38 million U.S. dollars) from the central government to raise standards.

Soinam, head of medical development at the hospital, explained how traditional herb processing had been transplanted from workshops to laboratories. The hospital began research on quality standards for medical herbs in 2006, and have since covered nearly 150 plants.

Soinam and his team are working hard to turn Tibetan medicine from its traditional decoctions and pills to granules which are more popular in the market but rely on broader use of modern extractive technology.