Saturday, May 12, 2012

Magical Mushrooms

          For thousands of years folk medicine has utilized mushrooms for medicinal purposes.  Chinese have practiced for centuries that mushrooms promote a healthy and long life.  There is even evidence within the Egyptian hieroglyphs that Egyptians prized mushrooms, generally reserving them as a food of royalty and associating them with immortality.  Today, modern medicine and science continue to find evidence that traditional healers seemed to know what they were doing.  Not only do modern naturopathic practitioners continue to preach the use of myriad fungi to treat ailments ranging from inflammation to treatment of the common cold, but Western medicine is making room for medicinal mushrooms as well. 
Turkey Tail Mushroom
            Coriolus versicolor (also known as Trametes versicolor) is more commonly known as the turkey tail mushroom.  This mushroom, named for its resemblance to the tail of a turkey as seen above, has been studied in conjunction to other more common cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation.  Turkey tail mushrooms have been known to boost immune function and the findings of its use in cancer treatment are quite promising.
            Japan and China have both isolated extracts from this mushroom (known as PSP and PSK) and they are often prescribed in these countries as adjunctive treatment for cancer to boost immune function before, after and during other treatments such as surgery, chemo and radiation.  A ten-year study in Japan found that Stage I and Stage II patients with non-small cell carcinoma of the lung who were treated with Coriolus extract had a 39% 5-year survival rate compared to the 16% seen in patients who did not receive the extract.  For Stage III patients, those treated with extract had a 5-year survival rate of 16% compared to only 5% seen in the group who did not receive the extract.  This data, which was even presented at the 2009 International Society of Integrative Medicine meeting on IntegrativeOncology for Clinicians and Cancer Patients, provides a new avenue to explore for boosting immune function in cancer patients.  These studies found that the effects of turkey tail mushrooms occurred at a dose-response rate.  This means that as the dose of turkey tail mushrooms, which come in capsule form, increased, so does immune function. 

            Turkey tail mushrooms are not the only mushrooms that are taking center stage in the world of Western medicine.  There are also many other mushrooms that are being investigated in their effects on cancer.  Some other mushrooms to explore include the maitake mushroom and even the shitake mushroom.  Information on these and others can be found in the synopsis of the International Society of Integrative Medicine document 

   This next mushroom provided the derivative for a new medication that is predicted to be in the top ten most profitable commercially produced drugs in history.  The mushroom is Cordyceps sinensis and the drug is Gilenya, the first oral medication approved to treat multiple sclerosis (MS).

MRI scans of MS patient showing visible lesions
            MS is an autoimmune disease that afflicts more than two million people worldwide.  It is an incurable disease in which your own body’s immune system attacks your nervous system.  More specifically, the body attacks the myelin sheaths that protect nerve cells. This means that people living with MS suffer from nerve damage along their optic nerve, spinal cord and in their brains.  This nerve damage ultimately results in problems controlling muscles in the body.  This can mean difficulty walking, with coordination, incontinence, painful muscle spasms, slurred speech and trouble eating.  While this disease does not have a known cure, there are medications out there to make the symptoms manageable.  All of these medications but Gilenya are injections.  Gilenya is designed to treat relapsing-remitting MS, and it has been found to be greatly effective which is why it is the first FDA-approved oral medication for MS.  This will make the disease easier to treat and should improve MS patients’ quality of life.  While the promise of Gilenya is enticing, I want to refocus this discussion back to the mushroom that led the to production of Gilenya.  If you want to learn more about Gilenya and how it works, watch this video presented by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America.
         Cordyceps sinensis is a Himalayan fungus  that invades insect larva during the winter.  The fungus then feeds on the insect until it grows out of the host in the summer.  Some of you may remember learning about a mushroom that functions similarly in a segment of Planet Earth, the popular Discovery & BBC education video program on nature.  The mushroom showcased in Planet Earth are from the same family (Cordyceps) and function the same way. You can watch the following YouTube video from Planet Earth on a different species of Cordyceps mushroom to see how the fungus grows from its host:
Cordyceps sinensis sprouting from a caterpillars head
This mushroom initially attracted the attention of biologist Tetsuro Fujita because he wanted to explore the fungus’ mechanism of suppressing the immune system of its host.  Fujita was researching ways to reduce the chance of rejection of transplant organs by suppressing the immune systems of patients.  In an interview he even admits that at the time of this discovery, he knew little to nothing about MS as a disease.  However, it was Fujita’s research at Kyoto University that allowed Japanese drug researcher Mitsubishi Tanabe to develop a drug that is expected to be worth more than $5 billion dollars annually by 2018.

        Although mushrooms have been a part of folk medicine for thousands of years, it is clear that it is about time that modern medicine took the time to look at the ways of tradition.  Not only do mushrooms have the potential for many drug avenues, but research in other areas show their promise in other ways for disease control.  Check out this video below presented by Paul Stamets at the 2011 TedMed Conference about the power of mushrooms for drugs but also as potential for vector control of insects such as mosquitoes and flies, which could have serious implications for diseases such as malaria: 

        Jae Rhim Lee has also discovered a novel use for mushrooms.  Our bodies intake and filter many toxic substances that we encounter on a daily basis.  While this makes many concerned for their daily health, Rhim asks us to consider the effects that these toxins that are stored in our bodies will have on the planet when we die.  Not only does the decomposition of our bodies allow these toxins to leach into the environment, but the chemicals that we use to slow decomposition and the cosmetics that we use to try and make the dead appear at peace also leach into the environment.  Rhim has found a way to utilize edible mushrooms to decompose our bodies when we pass to filter out these toxins before they reach the soil.  To learn more about a new potential relationship between your body and your food and a way to return your body to the earth in a greener and more environmentally friendly manner, watch the following TedTalk:


 Sources Cited:

Horowitz, Sara (2011). Medicinal Mushrooms: Research Support for Modern Applications of Traditional Uses. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. 17(6): 323 - 329

Matsuyama, Kanoko (2011). From Soup to MS drug:  One Fungus' Journey's. Bloomberg Business Week. 

"Multiple Sclerosis" (2011). PubMed Health. 

Schachter, Michael (2009). Integrative Oncology for Clinicians and Cancer Patients. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE 2(1): 52 - 92

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  1. Love these stuffed mushrooms.. looks so delicious and inviting..

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