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Mushrooms, Fungi & Medicine

"The Mushroom's legendary effects on promoting good health have been supported by recent scientific studies. Probiotic Mushrooms for good health, nutrition, and immune system stimulation."

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Fungi as a Platform for New Medicine

by: David Law

This article is an expansion on my talk on mushroom Nutraceuticals during the Specialty mushroom session [DML1]at the 12th NAMC Exposition in Vancouver B.C. in July of this year. My objective in writing this article is to share with you, my colleagues in the industry, the potential for mushrooms as Nutraceuticals. For many years, mankind has benefited from green plants as a source of drugs and herbal remedies. Fungi, on the other hand, have not been considered in any significant way. However, this is changing very rapidly and I expect to see the prominence of fungi as major sources of pharmaceuticals and medicinal foods in the coming years. The platform for fungi as a source of pharmaceuticals and health foods will be very important and the economic potential will be mind boggling.

During the past 50 years, several major advancements in medicine came from lower organisms such as molds, yeast, and fungi. Penicillin, derived from a mold (Penicillum notatum), was hailed as a wonder drug for communicable diseases. We have also seen a rapid pace of advancement in organ transplant due to Cyclosporin, a billion-dollar drug derived from a fungus that uses insects as its host. Cylcosporin suppresses the immune system of transplant patients hence lowering tissue rejection rates. Many transplant operations that were not possible due to tissue rejection have become commonplace today.

At Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc., we have been growing mushrooms for 20 years for both the culinary and the health food trades. We currently cultivate over 20 species of mushrooms with half of these earmarked for top restaurants in North America and Europe (Table 1) . The other half are cultivated for the health food industry in North America, Asia, and Europe. Table 2 contains some of the varieties of fungi for health food that we are currently cultivating.

We are continuing to study new species to add to our repertoire and we anticipate that our list will grow to over 30 species in the very near future. Three of the mushrooms on the above list, Coriolus versicolor, Lentinula edodes, and Schizophyllum commune are used as drugs in Japan with an annual aggregate sales of over one billion U.S. dollars. Refined compounds from these mushrooms, generally polysaccharide-peptides, are used as adjuncts to chemotherapy. These compounds are capable of elevating the immune systems of patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Many scientific studies have been performed in universities and medical facilities, particularly in the Far East. Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea have produced volumes of studies on the medicinal effects of mushrooms on many different ailments affecting humans. Most of the compounds found in mushrooms are classified as Host Defense Potentiators (HDP). These compounds include polysaccharides, polysaccharide -peptides, nucleosides, triterpeniods, complex starches, and other metabolites produced by mushrooms. The mechanism of HDPs is host mediated. They help the body regulate the development of lymphoid stem cells and other important defense responses.

By looking at the life cycle of mushrooms, the logic of HDP effects is revealed. Mushrooms sit close to the lowest rung in the ecosystem, thriving on decaying materials in a very hostile environment. During the vegetative stage, or the mycelial stage in the mushroom life cycle, digestive enzymes are excreted to digest food outside the cells. Since the mushroom needs to absorb the digested food, it must first deactivate any natural pathogens. A mushroom is also very proficient at expelling undesirable chemicals and contaminants that are absorbed during the ingestion. In order for a mushroom to thrive, it must have an aggressive, proactive immune system.

Most studies on the health benefits of mushrooms for humans have focused on immune enhancement properties. Complex sugars and their derivatives are able to stimulate a higher level of cytokine production in humans. Cytokines are proteins produced by the immune system to facilitate communication between cells. Some common cytokines include Interleukins, interferon, natural killer cells (NK cells) activating factors and tumor necrosis factors. I personally feel that mushrooms affect human regulatory functions that include the immune, the neural and the hormonal systems. Many times we get sick because of imbalances in our systems that allow opportunistic pathogens to attack our bodies.

Graph 1

Health Cycle of Typical Person

Earlier this year in Vancouver, I spoke about "human health cycles." Graph 1 depicts the health cycle of a typical person. The lower line in graph 1 represents a normal health cycle, the upper line represents an enhanced health cycle with frequent intake of supplements. The upper line has a much smaller area under the pathogenic line hence a shorter period of illness. When a person's immune system weakens due to stress from daily living or exposure to pollution and contaminants, opportunistic pathogens sometimes get the upper hand and a person gets sick. Generally, an incident of illness carries insignificant consequence; one would go visit a doctor, receive a prescription, rest and gradually recover from the ailment. However, the long term effects of accumulated bouts of illness may pose a more serious problem.

Every time we get sick, a potential vulnerable spot opens in our bodies which may gradually weaken and deteriorate into something harmful over time. During subsequent illnesses, our immune systems become overtaxed. Some of these vulnerable loci are now at risk of insufficient care from the immune system. After multiple genetic mutations in the same location, abnormal or malignant growth may result. The process is generally quite slow and takes many years and many bouts of illness to manifest itself. The trick is to have a well-regulated body and to minimize the time we spend under the pathogenic line illustrated in Graph 1. If we can minimize the frequency and severity of all illnesses, and recover quickly, we are more likely to enjoy a healthy quality of life. A balanced diet, sufficient rest, a positive outlook, and frequent consumption of supplements including mushroom products will contribute to increasing the odds of obtaining and maintaining good health.

During the past 100 years, human progress has created an environment in which our immune systems are well catered to. Today, we live in artificial environments where air is filtered and food is processed. We frequently subject ourselves to antibiotics and a variety of interventions to improve our well being. Our immune systems are no longer being challenged on a regular basis the way they would be in a more natural environment. A major function of our immune system works like an electronic imaging device. Foreign materials invading our systems are being monitored constantly. Information on new pathogens and other molecules is stored in our immune data bank. When hostile pathogens attack our bodies, our immune systems are capable of mounting fast immune responses if we have a substantive data bank of foreign substances. However, with a meager data base in a patronized immune system, we are incapable of dealing with many pathogens. A slow immune response will not be able to cope with an onslaught of pathogens. Mushrooms provide a regular challenge to the immune system by presenting many different molecules to the system in a non-hostile manner. A physician friend remarked that with mushrooms supplements we have a "24 hour Nautilus for our immune system".

Recently, several scientists in the U.S. began studying specific endophytic fungi as potential factories for the production of naturally occurring drugs. Several novel fungi growing in Pacific yew trees were found to be capable of producing a Taxol-like substance independent of the yew trees. Taxol is an important chemotherapy drug which has attracted much attention in the field of oncology. Naturally occurring Taxol is derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), but yield is extremely low. Furthermore, harvesting the bark of the Yew tree also means killing the tree. The demand for Taxol outstrips the supply of the Pacific Yew. The possibility of harnessing plant-microbe interactions for the production of medicine is an exciting development. This is an area with tremendous potential for major medical breakthroughs.

As more controlled studies in laboratories and well designed clinical trials on mushrooms accumulate, we will learn more about the health benefits and the working mechanisms of mushrooms in humans. Eventually, this body of knowledge will form the foundation of a platform for fungi in the development of new medicines, medicinal foods, and food supplements. From a genetic evolutionary point of view, fungi are closer relatives to mammals than green plants. Recently, we have had several inquiries about using mushrooms for animals with symptoms such as feline leukemia, and for enhancing the immune systems of thoroughbred racehorses. We have derived many health benefits from green plants, but we have barely scratched the surface of fungi as a source of prevention and cure of diseases. Stay tuned.

(c) 1996 David Law. All Rights reserved

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Therapeutic effects of substances occurring in higher Basidiomycetes mushrooms: a modern perspective.

Wasser SP & Weis AL. 1999. Crit Rev Immunol. 1999;19(1):65-96.

International Centre for Cryptogamic Plants and Fungi, Institute of Evolution, University of Haifa, Israel.

This review highlights some of the recently isolated and identified substances of higher Basidiomycetes mushrooms origin that express promising antitumor, immune modulating, cardiovascular and hypercholesterolemia, antiviral, antibacterial, and antiparasitic effects. Medicinal mushrooms have a long history of use in folk medicine. In particular, mushrooms useful against cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lungs, etc. are known in China, Russia, Japan, Korea, as well as the U.S.A. and Canada. There are about 200 species of mushrooms that have been found to markedly inhibit the growth of different kinds of tumors. Searching for new antitumor and other medicinal substances from mushrooms and to study the medicinal value of these mushrooms have become a matter of great significance. However, most of the mushroom origin antitumor substances have not been clearly defined. Several antitumor polysaccharides such as hetero-beta-glucans and their protein complexes (e.g., xyloglucans and acidic beta-glucan-containing uronic acid), as well as dietary fibers, lectins, and terpenoids have been isolated from medicinal mushrooms. In Japan, Russia, China, and the U.S.A. several different polysaccharide antitumor agents have been developed from the fruiting body, mycelia, and culture medium of various medicinal mushrooms (Lentinus edodes, Ganoderma lucidum, Schizophyllum commune, Trametes versicolor, Inonotus obliquus, and Flammulina velutipes). Both cellular components and secondary metabolites of a large number of mushrooms have been shown to effect the immune system of the host and therefore could be used to treat a variety of disease states.

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