Tibetan Medicinal Wonders Manufactured By A Swiss Pharmaceutical Firm

Padma is Europe's only pharmaceutical company producing Tibetan medicines, working to adapt Eastern cures to strict Western regulations.

Tibetan monks at Wutun monastery (Tom Thai)

Michael von Ledebur

WETZIKON - Allspice, columbine herb, gypsum, marigold petals, cardamom, sandalwood, Icelandic moss: the list is long of ingredients in Padma 28. The compound, which is the Swiss drug manufacturer Padma AG's top product, promises to help with circulatory problems. As with most Tibetan medicines, its healing powers stem from a combination of many plant and mineral ingredients. Despite its seemingly complex recipe – composed of a 22 different active ingredients - the production of Padma 28 is quite simple: ingredients are ground, mixed, and pressed it into capsules.

Complex yet simple: this contradiction seems to characterize Padma, which is attempting to manufacture Asian remedies according to European standards. The unique task has turned what should be a simple manufacturing process into a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. Every drug must be tested at every step of its production. "It goes back and forth to the laboratory five times," says managing director Herbert Schwabl.

If Padma were to skip these steps, the company could produce its drugs at a tenth of their current price, explains Schwabl. But then it would hardly make sense for the company to base its manufacturing out of Wetzikon, Switzerland. The competition in India, Nepal, Russia and the United States is already making these medicines for much less. But consumers can never be sure if these products contain heavy metals or other contaminants, says Schwabl.

In recent weeks, Padma has taken another step on the path towards being a modern pharmaceutical company. Up until now, the ingredients were merely mixed in Wetzikon - the tablets were actually pressed in Germany. Now, Padma makes the pills in-house, and has switched from tablets to capsules, only outsourcing the grinding of its ingredients to a company in St. Gallen. For two million francs ($2.1 million), the company has also built one of the most modern capsule-filling systems in Switzerland.

Tripling production

Padma's total new investment amounts to four million francs ($4.25 million). That's a substantial sum for this company, which annually converts eleven million francs ($11.7 million) and employs 40 people. These new initiatives were taken as part of an ambitious growth strategy. Padma currently produces 20 tons of drugs (70 million capsules) annually. With its new facility, it hopes to begin producing three times as much. Schwabl anticipates that much of this growth will occur abroad, which currently accounts for 35% of sales. "The market in Switzerland is saturated," he says.

But it is not only the laws of the market that will determine Padma's success. The battle for drug approval also requires persistence, time and money. In Switzerland, only Padma 28 is recognized as a drug, but in the canton of Appenzell Outer-Rhodes, dozens of its drugs are approved. Schwabl, who is also the President of the Swiss Association of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has been lobbying for years to have these canton-approved drugs approved throughout Switzerland.

The fight for drug approval is also difficult on a European level. Since EU treaties exclude the health sector, Schwabl must negotiate with the authorities of each country individually. Last December, Padma 28 was recognized as a drug in Austria, the first EU country to do so. The decision was the result of five years of work and now Schwabl is hoping that Austria's acceptance of the drug will have a ripple effect, with a particular eye on the German market.

What complicates the approval of these Tibetan medicines is the fact that they are composed of dozens of drugs. It is difficult to show how these materials work together, says Schwabl, who is a trained biophysicist. "Unlike in Western medicine, the effects of this drug cannot be attributed to a single molecule. I cannot explain why the drug works." He says they can demonstrate Padma 28's utility simply by its effect on patients.

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