still young, Chinese-American scientist Jau-Fei Chen has already carved
out a territory of her own. Starting with immunology and combining it
with Chinese herbal medicine, she has created "nutritional immunology."
Though a new field of study, its existence proves yet again the old
adage that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
immune system is like an army, protecting us from invading pathogens.
B-cells produce all kinds of weapons, antibodies, which recognize
different invaders. Macrophages are like street cleaners, responsible
for eliminating the corpses of cells killed in battle, eating bacteria. .
a packed Taipei International Convention Center, a young woman with an
array of charts and graphs speaks confidently from the stage. She is
explaining the importance of the immune system and how to care for it.
The audience is impressed not only with her knowledge, but also with her
so young!" whisper listeners seated in the auditorium. And her
eye-catching beauty contrasts with most people's expectations of what a
scientist looks like.
A bucketful of awards
in Chiayi, Chen emigrated with her family when she was 10 years old.
Though she may be unfamiliar to Taiwanese, her name is very well known
in the American Overseas Chinese community. The 34-year-old Chen not
only holds a doctorate in microbiology from Brigham Young University,
she also founded E. Excel International ten years ago. The company,
which makes health products from extracts of Chinese medicinal herbs,
has made a name for nutritional immunology. In just a few short years,
the company has expanded from America to 11 countries including France,
Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. This year, its products will even
has been selected as one of the World News Organization's 100
Outstanding Overseas Chinese in America. In 1993, she received the
Second Overseas Chinese Entrepreneur of the Year Award. In 1996, she was
selected as one of America's Outstanding Women and California's
Legislature named March 8 of that year Jau-Fei Chen Day.
January of this year, she was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young
Americans by the US Junior Chamber of Commerce, the first time in the
award's 59-year history that it has been given to a person of Chinese
descent. The ten award recipients were selected from more than 100
candidates. The winners included a person devoted to protecting children
from sexual abuse, another engaged in promoting the environmental
protection cause, a legislator and an Air Force pilot. Chen was selected
for her many years of effort to promote nutritional immunology around
the globe, her creation of an international organization to produce and
market related food products, and her contribution to health care
through education about nutrition.
addition to business and community service awards, in 1992, Chen also
received the Martin de la Cruz Award, herbal medicine's highest honor.
And last year, at the annual Conference of World Traditional Medicine,
she received awards for best product (for a cactus-derived product) and
for best written work.
is this nutritional immunology which has received such numerous
accolades? And how did Chen become involved with this research?
A reaction to modern medicine
thinking behind nutritional immunology is really very simple,
emphasizing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Chen
explains that the body's internal balance and the immune system are
intimately connected. Moreover, nutrition strongly affects the immune
system's capabilities. An unbalanced diet impairs the effectiveness of
immune cells, making the body more vulnerable to bacterial and viral
invasions and to chronic ailments.
seemingly common-sense point of view is actually a reaction to modern
medicine. For more than 100 years, modern medicine has pursued the
development of faster, more effective methods of fighting off bacteria
and viruses. For example, in 1928, antibiotics, commonly viewed by both
doctors and patients as an especially effective medication, were
developed. But pathogens are keeping pace with such improvements in
medication. Antibiotics may destroy 99 percent of invading bacteria, but
the remaining one percent are "trained" by the drug, becoming "super
bacteria." Ultimately, no medication is effective in eliminating these
gives other examples of problems facing modern medicine. The Hanta
virus, which originally only afflicted rodents, has now become a threat
to humans. This virus kills its host within 48 hours of infection. And
tuberculosis, a disease once thought to have been eliminated, has
returned. Many in the medical community are concerned that even vaccines
will no longer be effective in preventing many illnesses.
there is cancer, the mere mention of which causes many to pale, which
begins with changes in the body's own cells. According to statistics,
for the last 15 years, cancer has been the leading cause of death in
Taiwan. Scientists researching its causes have found that after
congenital factors, the most important factor is problems in the
victim's own immune system which have made it unable to ward off foreign
invaders. And then there is AIDS, which has created world-wide panic.
The HIV virus which causes it disables its victim's immune system.
Scientists are making an all-out effort to find a cure.
impasses have caused the medical community to begin rethinking its
approach to illness. Instead of continuing to "treat the head if the
head hurts, treat the foot if the foot hurts," the new thinking is that
treatment should be directed at the causes of illness in the system as a
whole. The medical community is also beginning to look to the body's
own immune system for answers.
From cure to prevention
spite of the growing attention given to immunology over the last 20
years (and especially, given the AIDS epidemic, over the past 10) it
remains a relatively new field of medical study. In the early years of
research in the 1960s, efforts were devoted to research on vaccines.
Vaccination, the injecting of dead or weakened bacteria or viruses into
the body, stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies, allowing
the body to "know the face of the enemy." More recently, scientists have
moved on to more fundamental research, discovering that in addition to
defending the body from foreign invaders, the immune system gets rid of
wastes and can repair internal systems. Further, "If it is operating
normally, the immune system is more powerful than any medication," says
Chen. With modern countries moving towards national health insurance,
preventive medicine is receiving increasing attention because it can
reduce a country's health care expenditures.
how did the idea of nutritional immunology come into being? Although it
sounds like common sense (Chen herself is sure that others must have
seen the connection between the two), it was Chen who first expressed
the relationship in a systematic way.
original field of study was immunology. She entered Brigham Young at
the age of 16 and from there went directly on to graduate school,
receiving her Master's degree in immunology. At 26, she completed her
PhD in microbiology.
working on her PhD, she was involved with research on cancer
medications. "It was ten years of disappointment," she says. The
efficacy of chemotherapies is limited because at the same time the drugs
destroy the cancerous cells, they also destroy healthy cells. Seeing
the suffering of cancer victims undergoing chemotherapy, she began to
have doubts about the direction of the research she was doing,
eventually giving it up to investigate the condition of the patients.
one step further, she changed her focus from looking for a cure to
prevention. "If we could nourish the immune system to enable the body to
ward off an invasion of pathogens, that would be even better than going
to see a doctor after one is already sick." Chen discovered that the
causes of cancer were closely related to diet. If a person eats too much
meat, the animal protein and cholesterol cause the production of a
hormone within the body which impairs the function of the immune system.
this reason, her nutritional immunology research has focused
exclusively on plants. "Plants have a lot of nutrients as well as
phytochemicals. These strengthen the immune system and limit the growth
and dispersion of tumors and cancerous cells." Soybeans are a good
example of such a plant.
An ancient Chinese pharmacy
can't help but wonder if her choice of medicinal herbs as the focus of
her research is related to her being Chinese. To this Chen says that
being Chinese, she had been exposed to Chinese medicines. But as for her
research, she says that works such as A Compendium of Medicinal Herbs
focus largely on the medicinal uses of plants, while what she is looking
for are edible plants. She says, "Traditional knowledge only gives you
something to consider." Moreover, Chinese pharmacological works are
often incomplete and rather unclear. She says that to find plants with
value as nutritional supplements, she still must rely on accurate
the laboratory, the first step is to test plants for toxicity. After
this, research into which nutrients beneficial to humans they may
possess, and how much of them, may begin. For example, more than 100
nutrients can be extracted from mandarin oranges, while more than 10,000
can be found in a cactus. The time at which the plants are harvested is
also critical. "In the case of Ganoderma lucidum, the younger the
better. Thousand-year-old Ganoderma lucidum is just a creation of
kung-fu novels," she says with a laugh. Which portion of the plant is
used is also very important. The fruit of the common loofah is very
nutritious, but the best part of it is the sap from the vines.
Chen has not based her research entirely on traditional Chinese lore,
the bottleneck in which Western medicine has found itself stuck in
recent years and the resurgence in interest in traditional Chinese
medicine both have certainly contributed to the recognition of
nutritional immunology as a legitimate field of inquiry and the many
awards Chen has won.
Food is the best medicine
An-ti, a physician at National Taiwan University Hospital with a PhD in
immunology, says that in recent years Western medicine has hit a
bottleneck. Seeking a breakthrough, people are turning to the study of
traditional Chinese medicine. Against this background, he feels Chen's
bringing Chinese herbal medicine in on top of a foundation of Western
immunology is "visionary."
Sun also notes that, though the ancients lacked the word "immune," they
did have the concept of "rectifying the root and eliminating the bad."
Rectifying the root means, in modern terms, increasing immunity, while
eliminating the bad means removing toxins from the body, thus
pre-empting illness. "If these two points can be practiced, 80% of
illnesses would never get to the body in the first place," he says.
Yang, president of the Deh Yu Junior College of Nursing, who looks at
this issue from the point of view of nutrition, reaches a similar
conclusion. China has long had the concepts "food can treat illness and
build up the life force," and "food and medicine come from the same
source." Because Western medicine is limited in effectiveness against
chronic illnesses, help is being sought in traditional concepts of
preventive medicine, using herbs to restore balance to the body rather
than turning to pharmaceuticals.
the past people thought of food mainly in terms of providing nutrition
and satisfying their appetite. But recent research is starting to focus
on the health functions of particular ingredients in food," says Yang.
The herbal foods in traditional Chinese dietary culture are an important
source of special healthful ingredients.
fact, there is no conflict between East and West about these ideas. As
early as 2500 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine,
said "Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food." And isn't
there a Western saying, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"?
Sowing the seeds of education
wasn't Jau-Fei Chen just satisfied doing research? Why did she plunge
into the business world? When she established E. Excel in 1987, it was
at first purely a research organization. Two years later the company
began to manufacture products, "mainly because we wanted to use sales to
stabilize funding for research," says Chen. She emphasizes, "I have
always placed the greatest importance on education and research."
the typical medical school curriculum, immunology and nutrition studies
are two separate courses. Immunology is considered a branch of
medicine, while nutritionists need not study immunology. Through her
efforts, more than 10 medical schools in the US have already established
classes in "nutritional immunology."
and her research staff are often invited to speak to middle and primary
school students in the state of Utah. Using cartoons and computer
animation, they depict how immune cells fight their enemies, and compare
phagocytes to "garbage trucks." The kids are captivated. Chen and her
staff have also produced a multi-media instructional video on
nutritional immunology, which has been shown on nationwide public TV in
terms of R&D, besides corralling numerous experts in immunology,
nutrition, and herbal medicine, Chen also cooperates with many medical
schools in the US and the PRC. She offers scholarships to students doing
related research, while the company gets access to the schools'
expensive lab equipment and experts.
Classmates into teachers
Excel headquarters is located in Springsville, Utah, about 40 minutes
from the state capital of Salt Lake City. Utah is famous for its
beautiful mountain scenery. We visited in mid-March, with winter not
quite gone, and the mountains were snow-capped. Locals said it was too
bad we didn't come in spring, when the scene turns green.
the state government has strict regulations for heavy industry, the
environment is clean, and many health food companies have set up
headquarters there. Utah is also the main home of the Mormon religion,
and pornographic films and publications are banned. Brigham Young
University, where Chen studied, is famous for its strict rules. Guys'
hair cannot go below the shirt collar, and women may not wear super
short skirts. This is very unusual in America, where most universities
is Chen's second home abroad. When she was 10 her whole family moved to
Brazil, where she was the only Chinese in her class. She couldn't
understand a word, and was for a time thought to have a learning
disability, so she was sent for special education. But after getting the
hang of the language, she quickly caught up, and graduated first in her
high school class at the age of 15. Later she came to Utah with her
Chen was studying for her PhD at BYU, she began to teach advanced
immunology. At that time many of her students were older than her; she
even taught her own older sister. When they met in class, both were very
surprised. She still recalls that in the first class, she sat offstage,
too nervous to go to the lectern. Seeing this beautiful Chinese girl,
thinking she was a new classmate, the boy sitting next to her asked her
out to a movie.
A perfect match
is it about Chen, who has an older brother and three older sisters,
that has allowed her to stand out while still so young? Mrs. Chen says
that her daughter has never given her any cause for worry. Her sister
Jau-hwa says that it seems as if her little sister has grown up without
really being aware of it.
loves to learn. In school she often stayed in the lab very late, so she
got really good at grabbing mice!" That is how Mom Chen describes her
little girl. Jau-Fei Chen says that science is easy for her. But why?
She thinks, then says, "Most people study just to get the diploma, and
they feel pressure whenever they meet difficulties. I don't care so much
about degrees, yet I have studied all the way through to my PhD. Maybe
because I have not felt pressure, I have been able to see the larger
picture, and thus quickly find the problems in experiments."
Chen relates that Jau-Fei "went to study piano at the age of five. At
first the teacher didn't want to take her on as a student, but she could
absorb vast amounts. Whatever he taught she would learn, and by her
third year she was winning prizes." Recalling these long ago events,
Mrs. Chen still cannot conceal her pride. Jau-Fei still plays from time
to time. When she has a difficult problem to mull over, she will sit at
the piano, playing Chopin or Beethoven as she ponders.
can chalk up her meeting with her husband, Zhang Ruikang, to the piano.
A Shanghainese, Zhang won a scholarship to study voice at BYU. Once,
unable to find an accompanist for a competition, a friend asked Chen to
help out, and that is how they met. But in that era of confrontation
between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan classmates warned her
not to "fraternize with Communists."
they run the company together, she as chairman and he as general
manager. Sitting in their luxurious home on a hillside, and gazing out
over the huge stretch of apple and peach orchards, then looking back at
this talented and attractive couple with their three vivacious children,
it makes one wonder whether this isn't a fairy tale come to life.
Fresh apples and healthy fast food
a very special person," says Li Huan-hsin, general manager of E.
Excel's Taiwan branch. He describes her as very intelligent, and very
ambitious, even running all over to promote her ideas when she was
pregnant; but at the same time she is modest and affable, and her life
is very simple.
Taiwan branch was set up in 1990. In the increasingly flourishing
multi-level sales market for health foods, E. Excel, relying mainly on
products using natural herbs, has in a few short years already caught up
to many long-established firms in terms of sales.
up a company and doing promotion has allowed even more people to
understand the importance of nutritional balance, and there's nothing to
criticize in that. As for the efficacy of these products, because the
ROC Department of Health prohibits makers of foods from claiming health
effects, it's hard to tell. But Chiang Wen-chang, a professor of food
technology at National Taiwan University, says that if you see that the
ingredients are all natural vegetation, then at least they should be
An-ti, an authority on immunology, affirms the concept behind
nutritional immunology. But, even more, he hopes that a company as large
as E. Excel can provide more basic experimental evidence. "If there are
no clinical tests, at least there must be reports about tests on
animals. This would be more responsible to the public."
people wonder about the price of these health foods: "If the object is
to get people to use them, then why aren't they sold at ordinary prices,
so more people can enjoy the benefits?"
responds to such questions by saying that, if you see these as being
like ordinary Chinese medicine, of course there will be skepticism. But
in the production process, from cultivation to selection and culling,
nothing can be done lackadaisically. For example, you can't get much
juice out of a cactus, and when you husk pollen you only end up with one
pound out of ten. So naturally production costs are not low.
emphasizes that health and the immune system rely foremost on
nutrition, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, of which you should
eat 15 types a day. Can concentrates serve just as well? Chen says that
of course fresh vegetables are the best choice. Its just that busy
people today have little time to keep track of nutrition, so "fast
health food" is produced for the sake of convenience, not because it is
Leaving a mark in medical history
who see her with both a happy family life and career success, winning
prize after prize, think her life must be easy. How does she feel?
says lightly that she is no different than anyone else. But, she adds,
when she uses sales in the marketplace to promote science, others look
at her in a new light. "Sometimes I think selling is holding me back,"
she says, with a trace of grievance in her tone.
Chen has great faith in nutritional immunology. "Anything that conforms
to nature can't be too far wrong." Her greatest desire is to bring
Western immunology and Chinese herbal medicine together to create a new
science and leave her mark in medical history. "I also want people to
know that China is not only a place with history, that it has modern
Only time will tell whether or not she can realize this desire. And Chen's wish is perhaps shared by all Chinese people.
& right) Jau-Fei Chen, one of Ten Outstanding Young Americans
chosen this year by the US Junior Chamber of Commerce, stresses the
importance of good nutrition to the immune system. Her extraction of
useful products from edible medicinal plants has been slowly gaining the
attention of the medical community.
Ganoderma lucidum appears in kung-fu novels as the source of
immortality pills and much conflict. But according to scientists, at
least in the case of Ganoderma lucidum, the younger it is, the more
The lowly cactus should not be underestimated; it is packed with thousands of nutrients.
Dried water lilies can be brewed into a tea which, according to Chinese medicine, can improve the skin and metabolic functions.
Organs and tissues of the lymphatic system
lymph tissue related to the trachea
mesenteric lymph nodes
lymph tissue of the urinary and reproductive system
Waldeyer's tonsillar ring (lymph nodes, the tonsils, adenoids)
Primary lymph organs
Secondary lymph organs and tissues
main organs of the immune system include bone marrow, the thymus, lymph
nodes, the spleen, and others. These fight against invading toxins and
bacteria, and are "natural warriors." (drawing by Tsai Chih-pen)
headquarters of E. Excel, the company founded by Jau-Fei Chen, is
located in Utah in the US; in the background are snow-capped peaks.
extraction, mixing, concentration, and packaging, every step of the
production process must be rigorously monitored to insure quality.
A Jau-Fei Chen family picture. Its hard to imagine that this trim woman is already the mother of three.
nutritional immunology is Chen's vocation. How to put into practice the
old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is a major
test for people today. (photo by Diago Chiu)
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