This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 24, 2005
Celebrities Endorse Herbal Cold Remedy
IN A RECENT Q&A in the Montreal magazine Maisonneuve, Margaret ATWOOD gives her interviewer some unsolicited advice on how to deal with a cold. "You need to travel with a product called COLD-fX," declares CanLit's doyenne. "It's used by hockey players. It's a Canadian product, it's excellent. It's very potent ginseng. At the first tickle, take three of those."
Testimonials like that are money in the bank for executives at CV Technologies Inc., the Edmonton start-up that has spent more than a decade and $15 million developing a herbal remedy for colds and flu. And the celebrity converts just keep coming forward. Michael Burgess, the Toronto tenor who starred in the Canadian production of Les Miserables, is a satisfied customer. As are Clara Hughes, the Olympic medal-winning cyclist and speed skater, and any number of NHL players, including Edmonton Oilers captain Jason Smith and Montreal Canadiens centre Yanic Perreault.
Then there's Don Cherry. Company officials learned last year that the voluble broadcaster had been taking COLD-fX to ward off the chronic colds he's endured since childhood. So CV Technologies CEO Jacqueline Shan approached Cherry, who agreed to became an official spokesman for COLD-fX in return for a percentage of sales revenues being donated to Rose Cherry's Home for Kids, a charity named after his late wife. Cherry's mug - and mouth - now figure prominently in print and radio ads launched in the fall to push COLD-fX nationwide. "We know that Don doesn't give us scientific credibility," says Shan. "But he's someone known for speaking from his heart."
Made from an extract of chemicals found in North American ginseng, COLD-fX serves two functions. For existing infections, clients are told to take a total of 18 capsules over the course of three days. To prevent infection in the first place, a daily dose of two capsules is recommended. (The latter strategy doesn't come cheap: a year's supply would run about $300.)
According to Shan, a scientist and co-discoverer, the product works by boosting the immune system cells that help fight colds and FLU. In an attempt to back up that claim, COLD-fX has undergone seven clinical trials, an unusually high number for an herbal remedy, the most recent completed this fall. Led jointly by Gerry Predy, chief medical officer for Edmonton's Capital Health Region, and University of Alberta biochemist Tapan Basu, the study followed 323 adults, ages 18 to 65, who had a history of at least two upper respiratory infections in the previous year. Half took two COLD-fX capsules a day for a four-month period last winter. The other half received a placebo. While COLD-fX didn't ward off every infection, those taking it suffered 45 per cent fewer sick days than the placebo group, and the severity of their symptoms was cut by almost a third. Blood tests on the COLD-fX group also revealed heightened levels of certain white blood cells, considered key in fighting off viral infections.
Predy admits that, like many medical professionals, he is often skeptical of claims made about natural health products. But he was impressed by CV Technologies' research record, including two earlier trials that showed 198 residents at five U.S. nursing homes enduring much lower rates of influenza after taking COLD-fX. Such scrutiny is possible, adds Predy, because the company's own profiling technology, known as ChemBioPrint, can detail the multiple components in the capsules and ensure standardized dosages in each batch. And while Predy doesn't see COLD-fX as a replacement for annual flu shots, he says its ability to boost the immune system means "there is potential for the two to work together."
For the Chinese-born Shan, 41, who holds a doctorate in pharmacology from a university in Beijing and another in physiology from the University of Alberta, chasing a cure for the common cold has become a full-time job. She had some training in traditional Chinese medicine before she immigrated to Canada in 1987. So she knew one of the touted benefits of ginseng is enhanced disease resistance. "People get sick because their defence system is too weak to fight the viral attacks we're constantly subjected to," says Shan. "We wanted something from a natural source to strengthen immune cells."
While CV Technologies now has a strong core of private investors - many of them Alberta businessmen who swear by the product - that wasn't always the case. Shan says the company was often on the verge of going broke in the 10 years she has been with it and she sometimes worked without a salary. But grants from such public agencies as the National Research Council and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research kept the venture afloat - along with no small measure of luck.
One of those lucky turns came in 1996 when Glen Sather, then president and general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, took note of COLD-fX, which had just come on the market. Oilers players soon became guinea pigs for the company's first two-year trial. Shan was excited at testing the product on high-performance athletes, whose immune systems are constantly under stress from extreme exercise and frequent travel. Did it work? Well, the Oilers remain faithful clients. As, too, are players from 25 other NHL clubs, the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders. One of the reasons COLD-fX has swept the athletic world: the remedy contains no banned performance-enhancing substances.
Athletes aren't the only ones whose lifestyle makes them vulnerable to colds and flu. Tenor Burgess performs over 200 concerts a year across North America and says: "I can't just call in sick when I get a cold." Burgess started on COLD-fX five years ago after talking to Sather, and says it has helped keep him in front of the footlights.
One obstacle faced by the Toronto-based Burgess was tracking down the capsules; until recently, 80 per cent of COLD-fX sales came from Alberta. But with last fall's marketing push, it's now available in most major drug outlets across Canada. Gross sales for the first three months of fiscal 2005 stood at $11.3 million, nearly double the sales figure for all of 2004, which was the company's first profitable year.
But Shan already has her sights set on bigger prizes. Her studies show that Americans endure one billion colds annually - two to four for every adult and six to eight for every child - and that the North American market for cold and flu remedies is a US$4-billion-a-year industry. Then there's the rest of the world. "My dream," says Shan, "is for this product to be sold in every corner of the globe." Consider it a Canadian cold front in the making.
Maclean's January 24, 2005