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The mushroom: breakthrough medicine

November 10, 2003

by Helen Chickering, NBC News

Durham, NC -- The next cure for cancer may be found in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator.

Scientists are testing thousands of mushrooms. That’s right, the fungi we toss onto salads and make into soups - in search of potential cancer treatments.

"There’s a kind of a mystique about mushrooms..." Dr. Nick Oberlies heads a mushroom cancer research project at the Research Triangle Institute-- the same lab where the cancer drug Taxol was discovered from trees.

So looking for another magic bullet in fungi makes perfect sense to these scientists. "It’s got to protect itself it's got to keep the deer from eating it and it's got to keep chipmunks squirrels, etc. It might produce chemical compounds that have some sort of chemical advantage," said the doctor.

Oberlies and his team are hoping to tap into that chemical advantage to save lives. They've sampled the extracts of more than 1,300 mushrooms in the last year alone. "Of those 30-40 showed unique activity, we're working through those trying to determine which ones have unique compounds."

The scientists are testing those unique compounds on human cancer cells in the lab. "We hope to identify from the mushrooms, particular agents that are not only going to kill the cancer cells, but are also going to spare normal cells from those toxicities," said David Kroll, PhD, herbal researcher, Research Triangle Institute.

The team hopes to sift through nearly ten thousand mushrooms in the next few years, with the hopes a handful will show enough cancer fighting potential to make it to human trials. "I feel very optimistic we going to find we're going to find something interesting, if its going to be the next "cancer" drug, it's sometimes a leap of faith and luck... I’m a little superstitious don't want to get to proud of it all... but yeah, well definitely find something interesting," Oberlies said.

If the research triangle institute scientists do find a potential cancer fighter among the fungi, it will be an American mushroom. All of the mushrooms in the study are from North America. And if you think mushroom research sounds a bit strange, the group is also testing the disease fighting potential of bacteria found in soil. .

The American Cancer Society is sponsoring the mushroom research. You can log on to learn more about the mushroom research and the other natural products under study.

posted at 4:15 PM by dave.miller@walb.com

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