Magic mushroom? Federal Grant Empowers Seattle Researchers to Study Fungal Remedy for Cancer

University of Washington and Bastyr University bridge Western and Eastern medicine to investigate th
Elaine Porterfield  |   March 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Turkey tail mushroom
The turkey tail could very well be a magic mushroom

It’s a matchup that may seem as unlikely as, say, Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi, but both sides insist it’s a good fit: a collaborative study between Bastyr University and the University of Washington on how an extract from a mushroom common to forests around the world can help heal breast and prostate cancer patients.

Joining conventional Western medicine with the burgeoning world of natural treatments is a humble mushroom called Trametes versicolor, or the turkey tail—a tough and colorful fungus often brewed into a bitter-tasting tea by natural-medicine devotees, and the centerpiece of a $4.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Minnesota are also participating in the study.

“This is team science at its best,” says Bastyr co-principal investigator and research professor Leanna J. Standish, N.D., Ph.D. “I think what’s happened over the last 20 years is that gradually physicians and scientists in conventional medicine have learned from reading our research [in natural medicine]. We don’t talk about ‘alternative medicine’ much anymore. We talk about integrated medicine. I think it’s just an exciting thing to see—an old idea from Asia being studied...at the UW under the direction of Bastyr.”

Such collaborations are on the rise: The current study follows a $3.1 million NIH grant Bastyr received jointly with the Hutch last summer to research complementary and integrative care for breast cancer, that is, how to marry traditional cancer care—albeit cutting edge—with natural therapies, such as herbs.

 As for the turkey tail study, make all the jokes you will about magic mushrooms. The turkey tail might actually live up to its billing, given that it’s already in widespread use as a general cancer treatment in Japan. “The history of its use actually starts thousands and thousands of years ago,” Standish says. “Chinese physicians somehow figured out that there were [health] benefits to be had with these mushrooms. They had the most experience with one called yun zhi [the turkey tail] that grows in forests everywhere. I have some in my backyard. It grows on the bark of dead trees. It’s not particularly edible, but the Chinese figured out that, boiled in a soup, it had healthful properties.”

In 1977, Standish says, the Japanese medical community approved the use of turkey tail extract in the treatment of cancer. Nowadays, it’s used by many Japanese oncologists in standard cancer-treatment protocols to bolster the immune system, with the aim of preventing a recurrence.

Hailing Lu, M.D., Ph.D., research assistant professor of oncology in the University of Washington’s Tumor Vaccine Group, is one of the UW investigators on the mushroom study. Lu, who is also working on developing vaccines to prevent breast cancer, says the project with Bastyr researchers is a positive way to connect Western and Asian medicine, something that’s extremely meaningful to her.

“We are excited about this,” Lu says. “Japan and many other Asian countries have been using this [mushroom extract] for a long time. For me, it’s a great combination. I come from China, so the use of herbal products is not new for me. This is a bridging of Eastern and Western medicine.”

Both Bastyr and UW researchers say the public’s increasing interest in natural health care has created a growing need for basic and clinical research in that field, and they promise the study will be rigorous and thorough. In 2002, the two institutions teamed up and in 2010 published a paper on how the turkey tail mushroom extract works against cancerous cells in the laboratory, Lu says, noting that it clearly stimulated immune cells. While there are some conventional drugs in use that will do the same for cancer patients, they can have side effects, she says. “We are excited about the potential of this, to have immune-stimulating effects without toxicity.”

Standish couldn’t agree more. “We did a study earlier [in 2004] in breast cancer patients and looked at the mushroom in treatment. Was it safe? Did it help their immune system after radiation therapy? Radiation is very immunosuppressant. It was very surprising to me when it was found turkey tail could really correct their deficits in the immune system.”

For the new study, the mushroom extract will be tested in 30 women with breast cancer and 32 men with prostate cancer, recruited through the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Lu adds: “From what I have heard, there are lots of cancer patients interested in this therapy. It’s a new direction in research....Many cancer patients have been doing this [using the mushrooms] on their own, but without any scientific research.”

In four years’ time, the Bastyr-UW study aims to produce this definitive research—and perhaps an even stronger bond between conventional medicine and natural medicine.

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