Profiles: Ancient Medicine for Modern Times

The Woman Who Used Chinese Herbal Medicine to Develop Canada’s Most Popular Cold Medication: COLD-FX

by Dale Sproule

In 1987, Dr. Jacqueline Shan came to Canada and joined the research program at the University of Alberta to pursue her doctorate in physiology.

She had nearly completed her studies for a doctorate degree in pharmacology from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, but had a shaky grasp of the English language. That is why she recorded all of her classes on audio tape. “I not only had to play the tape back again and again, I had to repeat it and write it down to make sure I understood it,” she says. “It’s pretty lonely when you’re by yourself and you don’t speak the language. I was so busy with my classes and my research that I just didn’t have time to take English classes.”

Studying the audio tapes gave her good practice. “Another thing was reaching out to other people,” she says. “It helps to be social with English speaking people and to get some good friends.” Nonetheless, the language barrier – especially in this particular environment – was sometimes too big. “I’ll give you an example,” she explains. “This was just a few months after I came to Canada, during a Western Pharmacology Society meeting. I was presenting some research, and I was nervous. I memorized my presentation, so that wasn’t difficult. But at that time I was translating in my mind from Chinese to English and after the presentation, people were asking me questions I couldn’t understand. I ended up crying when I got home. It was such a humiliating and embarrassing experience. Although I tutored myself well, I was not ready for that.”

But language was not her only problem. The cultural barrier also came into play with the Canadian attitude toward herbal medicine. “Convincing people here of the value of herbal medicine was a tremendous obstacle,” she says. “I was always interested in herbal medicine even before I went to medical school in China. It was a part of our life.” She explains, “We used herbal medicine to prevent diseases, and when we got a disease, we also used herbal medicine to try to treat it. To my disappointment, the medical school I went to in Beijing was all about Western medicine. We learned everything about how drugs work but there was no pharmacology, no science about herbal medicine. I thought it was a shame, with all this biomedical research, to not go back to the old medicines – or make them any better.”

She decided that herbal medicine was her path, even in Canada where it is not regarded highly by the scientific community.

After graduation, she started a company called CV Technologies with a group of scientists. “We all believed that herbal medicine was the way to go.” Starting their own company wasn’t easy. They needed to come up with money and none of them had much at the beginning. “We had to convince relatives and friends. We had to find investors. We stayed afloat by doing contract research developing and testing drugs for the big pharmaceutical companies. Later, we needed money for the clinical trial and we didn’t have enough funding. We had to go public at that time.” [The company offered stocks to the public.]

They took a biomedical approach in developing the product. “I don’t believe we were the first ones doing research on traditional Chinese medicine. But we were probably the first to develop the unique technology to bring that research idea all the way to commercialization.”

“We were looking for something – the molecules from natural sources. We know from traditional use that they increase the body’s resistance, like when you’re sick and your Grandma feeds you chicken soup. And it’s good for you, right? So that was the basis of our research, and with Echinacea and Chinese Ginseng, the same thing. Eventually we found this particular group of compounds – we isolated it out – that had the most important effect on the immune system. We started with North American ginseng that happened to grow in Canada. It just happened. So this is really the perfect way to combine the traditional medicines with the ideas that come from Chinese herbal medicine, but Cold-FX comes from North American herbs. It’s a unique extract.”

After a while, CV Technologies changed its name to Afexa Life Sciences. “We started the product (Cold-FX) around 1997. We were only at the local health food stores in the West, and there wasn’t much revenue. If we go back in our history, it was probably always less than one million dollars.”

Learning from Her Success

Afexa’s financial success started in 2003 when they established national distribution. “We turned the company around and it became a profitable company.” A division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH–the world’s top research body) has recognized two clinical trials as demonstrating that COLD-FX reduces the risk of getting colds and flu.

Biotech research is much easier these days. Dr. Shan is a big supporter of science incubators like the MaRS Centre in Toronto. “These kind of incubators can mean so much for the start up when there is no money. Especially in the bio-tech or life sciences areas, developing a drug is usually a high-risk business. Research and commercialization usually takes a long time. When you’re challenged financially, it’s great to have these incubators. Tenants can share the facility and you can have a place to go. And you also have shared expertise… someone to show you the way. They can also help you find talented staff.”

She strongly believes that it’s useful for immigrants – even if they came to Canada with a degree – to consider going back to school again. “It was 20 years ago when I came to Canada, and compared to nowadays – we are so advanced in communication. The world has become smaller. 20 years ago in China, we didn’t know about the culture in Canada – and Canadians didn’t know what was happening in Asia. But now you can see it. Now you have the west communicating with the east and tremendous good things come of it. It’s great, especially for people moving from one side of the world to the other.

Shan can see the day when they might end up marketing Cold-FX in China. “If it’s good medicine,” she says, “it's good for everybody.”

CNM