Beijing (AsiaNews / Agencies) – In a period of less than 5 years at the end of the 1980s, haematologist Wang Zhenyi successfully treated over 95% of his patients suffering from acute promyelocytic leukemia (Apl) with natural methods, without chemotherapy. His methods were copied all over the world. But he shuns celebrity: when in January President Hu Jintao presented him one of two annual State awards for Science and Technology (pictured), China's highest scientific honour, he told television said that he realized his dream, as a doctor and a man "making his contribution to humanity", by treating leukemia.
Wang was born in Shanghai in 1924. A Catholic, in 1942 he enrolled in the faculty for medicine at the Jesuit run Aurora University, that went on to become the Fudan University, 10 years later. After graduation he started working at the Ruijon hospital (then called Guangco). He was shocked by the high mortality rate among patients with APL, a widespread type of leukemia, cancer of the blood and bone marrow, which affects 5 Chinese out of every 100 thousand.
For a long time in China, the health system did not cover medical treatment, the patient had to pay for treatment to survive, selling everything and throwing the whole family into debt. As a Catholic and a citizen of China, Wang refused to accept this injustice and sought for an effective but also cheap treatment. He combined Western with traditional Chinese medicine and now says that his patients can be cured "by swallowing some pills, which are also economic." His medicines cost about 2 yuan per day, about 1% of the cost of Western medical care. Instead of killing cancer cells, his method transforms them into normal cells through a mixture of retinoic acid (ATRA) and arsenic, a poison widely used in Chinese medicine.
In 1985 a 5 year old girl suffering from Apl arrived at the hospital. Wang convinced her parents to allow him to use the new treatment, tested in the laboratory but not on patients. A risk not only for the girl, otherwise most likely doomed to die, but also for the doctor, because "if my method had failed - Wang recalls on television – it would have damaged my reputation and ended my career”.
Another doctor would have rather continued laboratory research. But not those who want to save patients. "A month later – the elderly hematologist continues - she was completely recovered, like a normal person. Since then she has had a normal life, I was happy to know that she recently got married”.
In 1988, he prescribed the same treatment for 24 patients: all of whom recovered, except one. Wang did not want any intellectual property rights for his method and, indeed, wanted it to be known abroad for the benefit of the sick. In 1993 the method was applied to 54 patients in France, with a recovery of 91%. In 1995 it was used for 79 patients in the United States, with 86% recovering, and for 109 patients in Japan with a 89% success rate.
Wang was a teacher and mentor to medical personnel and politicians alike, such as the current Minister for Health Chen Zhu and his wife Chen Saijuan who specialized in hematology. He was famous medical dean, has been honoured with prestigious awards, is a member of international medical forums. But his life is marked by a passion for patients and his work.
When asked what drove his life, he replies that his Catholic faith has played a "tremendous" part. "I often say – he tells the South China Morning Post - that we have our patients at heart rather than try to rob them for money, the Catholic faith has taught me this." "In the darkest moments of my life, religion has helped me to keep going. I would not have otherwise been able to overcome them. "
At 86, every Thursday he still visits his patients in the wards.
He too was struck by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and sent to a rural village in the district of Jiading. Rather than give in, once again he committed himself to treating the sick; in order to care for them, given the scarcity of medical resources, he deepened his knowledge of herbs and acupuncture.