There’s a fungus among us – and it’s toxic to cancer

A Chinese–Danish research team has identified a new class of compounds in a common mushroom that could be used to develop cancer-fighting drugs

A cancer diagnosis can cause many people to explore alternative, natural means for treatment, something their doctors may look down upon as a waste of time and money. However, within a few years it’s possible these same doctors will be prescribing natural remedies in the fight against cancer.

Researchers at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen released details this week about their latest breakthrough – they have isolated certain active compounds from a mushroom that are particularly aggressive towards cancer cells. In an exclusive interview with The Copenhagen Post, Søren Brøgger Christensen, a professor of natural products research at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences (Pharma), discussed the findings and explained their significance for the fight against cancer.

According to Christensen, the mushroom, whose specific species name has not been released for reasons of intellectual property and a potential patent application, is unique in that its chemical structure is different from that of any mushroom species previously analysed. “This is a completely new class of natural compounds, which makes the research results unique,” said Christensen.

This uniqueness is what makes the mushroom especially potent in the battle against malignant cancer cells. The mushroom was discovered a few years ago when Dr Ming Chen, a Chinese–Danish practicioner at Sønderborg Hospital and a specialist in Chinese folk medicine, was screening poisonous mushrooms. The mushroom is significantly less toxic towards benign human cells than malignant cancer cells – 100 times less active, according to Christensen. Based on this discovery, Xuemei Liu, a Chinese exchange student at Pharma, was able to isolate the active compounds in the mushroom in order to determine their unique chemical structures.

However, this discovery is a long way off from hitting the market as a holy grail against cancer. Christensen emphasised that, as with all new products, taking the research results from the laboratory to pharmaceutical production is a long and complicated process. Even within the lab, a natural substance has to go through several steps towards development. For example, the analogue – synthetic compounds that fine-tune and even improve on a substance’s ingredients – that researchers produce must allow for the proper selectivity in the body, meaning that it has all of the natural substance’s beneficial characteristics and none of its harmful side-effects. Then it has to go through several stages of clinical trials and testing for safety and efficacy before it is approved by regulatory agencies for widespread use.

Currently, the Pharma team is working to synthesise and refine the natural substances of the mushroom so that they might be used in future drug development. This is done by producing analogues that contain simplified molecules, but should have all the same properties and promising benefits as the natural compounds.

The mushroom research at Pharma has received 2.6 million kroner to date from Protech Investment Ltd – a spin-off company of a large Chinese producer of natural medicines.

It appears that China is willing to invest in the mushroom study because traditional folk medicines derived from plants have been used for centuries in Asia. And whether these traditional folk medicines will continue to make their presence known outside of Asia in places like Denmark may very well depend on further research into the cancer-fighting mushroom.

Factfile | Medicinal mushrooms

‘Medicinal mushrooms’ is a general term for mushrooms that can be used in the treatment of diseases. More than 200 species of mushrooms with different effects against disease have been identified and studied, especially in Japan and China. Research indicates that some of these mushrooms contain substances that can prevent cancer or contribute to its treatment. One particular area of interest for researchers is the mushrooms’ long chains of carbohydrates (polysaccharides), which can affect the human immune system and potentially increase its ability to resist disease.

Medicinal mushrooms are used in traditional Chinese medicine as ingredients in strengthening tonics, extracts, teas or soups. Traditional Chinese medicine is a comprehensive medical system with a history that goes back thousands of years. Acupuncture, body exercises, massage, herbs and specific foods are included in the treatment.

With regard to cancer treatment, Christensen said: “Even though there is a wealth of medicinal mushrooms on the Asian market, it is unfortunately not possible to transfer Chinese folk medicine directly to Denmark. One problem is that the active principles in mushrooms are often tested in combination with forms of chemotherapy that we do not use in Europe.”

(Source: Danish Cancer Society / The Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Copenhagen)

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