Monday, December 10, 2012

How Killer Mushrooms Are Helping Out Humanity: Cordyceps

by Kyle Smith

Cordycepsinfected ant
Pretend you are an ant, spending your day searching for resources with other ants. How exciting! A breeze wafts across a line of workers and all of a sudden, several of your fellow workers start behaving rather strangely. Instinctually you and some other workers pick up your odd brethren and quickly isolate them far from the rest of the colony. As you observe the infected ants, they all begin to climb; however, they falter and seem very confused, as if they have never climbed in their lives before. In a last ditch effort they clamp down on the stalk they are climbing and do not move again. Thinking nothing of it, you leave and go back to work. Several days later, while searching for supplies, you end up in the same area where your brethren were. As you look up you see something astonishing. Your comrades are still clamped down in the same spot as before; however there is now something strange. Something appears to be growing out of your brethren and they are most certainly dead.

So what happened? Remember that breeze that blew across the line of workers? That breeze carried spores of Cordyceps, a deadly fungus, infecting various species of insects. When the spores come into contact with their host, they infect the brain quickly. Cordyceps causes behavioral changes which make them to climb upwards to die, where a fruiting body will form and feed on the body. The fruiting body forms spores and a gust of wind disperses the spores, completing the cycle of life. The truly fascinating part is that there are thousands of Cordyceps species, and each species is specific to the species of insect it is capable of infecting.

So how can a deadly fungus aid humanity? Well in China, the fungus has long been used as medicine for a wide variety of ailments. And as so often happens with ancient Chinese remedies, scientists are now looking into the specific effects Cordyceps has on the body. So what have they found so far?  Cordyceps has potential in anti-cancer treatments, boosting the immune system, and preventing testicular decline (2, 4, 5).

When extracts of Cordyceps cicadae, called cordlan, were cultured with human mononuclear cells (HMNC), it was found that interleukin-2 (IL-2) and interferon-γ (IFN-γ) production increase two to three fold (5). Human mononuclear cells are partially differentiated stem cells. Interleukin-2 is a cytokine used in the maturation of T cells. Interferon-γ is critical to the overall health of the body. Interferon-γ responds specifically to bacteria, viruses, and tumors, initiating the actions necessary to battle against these ailments. Additionally, chemicals used to differentiate immune cells into dendritic cells (called cytokines) increased significantly (5).  Dendritic cells have a very important role of bridging the gap between the innate and adaptive immunity of a human, allowing a specific reaction to a pathogen to be enacted. The innate immune system can be thought of as a non-specific fight, and through the help of dendritic cells, recruitment of the very specific adaptive immune system can occur (1). It is the adaptive immune system which prevents us from becoming sick from the same thing twice, and with the recruitment of the adaptive immune system in a shorter time span, one could conceivably become healthier faster.

The anti-tumor properties of C. cicadae have been studied for over thirty years. It has been found in a number of studies, dating back to 1982, that not just C. cicadae, but many of the fungi of the genus Cordyceps possess anti-tumor compounds in their polysaccharide matrix and in a compound cordycepin (2). Cordycepin has been found to increase the concentrations of tumor necrosis factor α, which, as can be gathered from the name, reduces the size of tumors by inducing cell death (3).

Cordycepin also has a very interesting side effect. It has been shown that in low doses it can improve the overall testicular health of middle-aged rats(4). And since this is America and we are seemingly obsessed with having sex well into our senior years, this is obviously a critical discovery. However it was noted that too much of something thing can be bad, and in large doses cordycepin caused faster testicular decline (4).

So what does this all mean?  A parasitic fungus has potential to help the human race with cancer developments and responding to infections. Several compounds, which are easily isolated from this mushroom, could easily help your body’s natural immunity, allowing naïve cells to mature more quickly into more beneficial cells (5). And even for the middle aged men out there, cordycepin could prevent testicular decline (4). While cordycepin is currently available as a supplement in pill form, I would caution anyone from consuming it. As it is a natural supplement, it is not subjected to FDA standards, such as human testing, and as a result any benefits received are likely placebo effect and is mostly hokum.

While this genus of fungus does have the reputation of being very deadly to insects, killing them in such a magnificent way, it has the potential to be beneficial to humans. The compounds contained within its cell have the ability to boost the immune system, fend off cancerous cells, and even rescue testicles from decline. As humans continue to research and discover more and more species, it becomes more obvious that the cures to the worst diseases that affect us may be obtained from nature. 

(1)  Delves, P. J. and I. M. Roitt "The Immune System." New England Journal of Medicine 2000 343(2): 108-117.

(2)  Khan MA, Tania M, Zhang DZ, Chen HC “Cordyceps mushroom: a potent anticancer nutraceutical.” Open Nutraceuticals J 2010 3:179–183

(3)  Patel S, Goyal A “Recent developments in mushrooms as anti-cancer therapeutics: a review” J Biotechnology 2012 2:1-15

 (4)  Sohn SH, Lee SC, Hwang SY, Kim SW, Kim IW, Ye MB, Kim, SK “Effect of Long-term Administration of Cordycepin from Cordyceps militaris on Testicular Function in Middle-aged Rats.” Planta Medica 2012 78:1620-1625

(5)  Weng SC, Chou CJ, Lin LC, et al. “Immunomodulatory functions of extracts from the Chinese medicinal fungus Cordyceps cicadae.” J  Ethnopharmacol 2002 83:79-85.

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