Exotic mushrooms could herald a new era of cancer treatment and prevention as the Western world learns lessons from the Orient according to a report released by Cancer Research UK.
The charity has produced the world’s most comprehensive review of information about the way medicinal mushrooms are used in Japan, China and Korea where they have been reported to have anti-tumour properties and to stimulate the immune system to fight disease.
It also documents evidence from studies in the Far East that medicinal mushrooms can help reduce side effects from radio- and chemotherapy and significantly improve the quality of life in patients with advanced cancer.
Dr Richard Sullivan, head of clinical programmes for Cancer Research UK, said: “A vast amount of information has been collated which suggests that compounds derived from mushrooms could have a hugely beneficial influence on the way cancer is treated.”
Some trials in Japan, China and, more recently in the US, are indicating that chemical compounds derived from medicinal mushrooms can prolong survival of cancer patients. But there is concern that the standards of trials in the East may not meet current Western regulatory requirements.
“We hope that with the publication of this report more Western cancer doctors will be encouraged to set up trials to assess the potential of these compounds in treating cancer,” said Dr Sullivan.
Professor John Smith from the University of Strathclyde, who led the review, said: “There is now increasing evidence that the medicinal mushrooms offer a remarkable array of medicinally important compounds that have yet to be evaluated by Western medical scientists.
“Mushrooms are also very nutritious as food because they contain all the essential amino acids and are an excellent source of vitamins. Evidence suggests that exotic mushrooms – such as the shiitake, enoke and oyster varieties which are used in many modern recipes – have major dietary benefits. But while the large flat mushroom and the button variety found in most shops are highly nutritious, there is no documented evidence that they have the exotic mushroom’s special medicinal properties.”
Medicinal mushrooms taken as powdered concentrates or extracts in hot water are believed to enhance the immune responses of the body and help overcome disease. And Prof. Smith says that many show cholestrol lowering ability and may have importance in cardio-vascular diseases.
A survey conducted over 14 years among Japanese mushroom workers in the Nagano Prefecture implied that a regular diet of edible medicinal mushrooms was associated with a lower death rate from cancer than of other people in the Prefecture.
The average cancer death rate in the Prefecture was one in 600. But the rate dropped to one in 1000 among farmers who produced edible mushrooms.
More than 100 species of mushroom are documented by practitioners of Chinese medicine as treatments for a wide range of ailments. And many mushroom-derived medicinal products are already manufactured by Japanese, Korean and Chinese pharmaceutical companies.
Mushrooms have long been valued as tasty, nutritious food by different societies throughout the world. To the ancient Romans they were the “food of the Gods” resulting from bolts of lightning thrown to the earth by Jupiter during thunder storms; the Egyptians considered them as “a gift from the God Osiris” while the Chinese viewed them as “the elixir of life.”
Other cultures, notably those in the UK, Ireland and much of North America, have grown up with a fear of mushroom poisoning. By contrast fungus-loving societies are found throughout Asia and in much of Europe – especially Poland – and Russia where wild mushrooms are extensively collected or bought and incorporated into soups, stews and teas.
Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says: “The information coming out of the East about the apparent benefits of mushrooms for health and the potential to help treat cancer patients is very interesting. More work needs to be done on how mushrooms can be used in Western medicine. This report gives weight to the argument for clinical trials to be set up to try to validate research done in other parts of the world, which may not have met all the criteria laid down in western medicine.”