Exploring their promise
By Sue Russell
Can mushrooms help fight high blood pressure, diabetes, and even cancer, HIV and AIDS? In Asia, the powerful healing properties of medicinal mushrooms have been recognized and sought out for several thousand years. In medieval Japan, the rare maitake (my-tah-key), a member of the ‘Monkey’s Bench’ family, was so highly prized it was worth its weight in silver. Now it is proving to be the most potent of the medicinal mushrooms and being studied closely by scientists in the US.
Maitake means Dancing Mushroom in Japanese. Folklore has it that the mushroom was so named because wildcrafters danced for joy when they found it. (Understandable, given that a single cluster can grow to 100 lbs.)
In folk medicine, the maitake (or Grifola frondosa) was credited with having near-miraculous healing properties. Other mushrooms such as the Reishi and the Shiitake have also been long revered and used to stimulate the immune system. The Shiitake, now a nouvelle cuisine staple, has a remedial history in China dating back to the Ming Dynasty but in traditional Chinese Medicine, the Reishi was considered the most effective medicinal mushroom.
The mushrooms were believed to switch on the body’s immune system, so to speak. It was thought that they activated the body’s own defenses like T-cells, which of course have cancer-fighting abilities.
20 years ago, Japanese researchers began studying and comparing various mushrooms clinically and three anti-cancer drugs extracted from mushrooms were subsequently approved by the Japanese government. One, PSK (derived from the kawaratake), has been widely used in Japan and Europe since the mid-‘60s.
In more recent tests, maitake’s potency has earned it the label, the King of the Mushrooms. In the late 80s, Professor Hiroaki Nanba, Ph.D. of Japan’s Kobe Pharmaceutical University isolated various fractions or components and came up with the D-Fraction. A protein-bound extract, the D-fraction is a particularly active beta-glucan that stays sufficiently intact in the digestive tract to be taken orally rather than injected and still stimulate the immune system.
Dr. Nanba conducted a study in which three groups of mice were injected with cancer cells then fed a normal diet or one with maitake powder or with injections of D-fraction. The spread of the cancer was not inhibited at all in the mice on the normal diet but was prevented by 81.3% in the maitake-fed group, and by 91.3% in the group given D-fraction.
Dr. Nanba also compared D-fraction to the widely used chemotherapy drug, mitomycin-C, and found that a low dosage produced an approximate 80% shrinkage of tumours in the mice compared to 30% with mitomycin-C. With the two combined, the shrinkage was 98%.
While the whole mushroom was shown to be useful in lowering blood pressure levels, the D-Fraction’s ability to inhibit tumour growth and to prevent cancer from metastasising is what has researchers excited. Both are being used to treat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
For Mike Shirota, president of Maitake Products Inc., the company that is pioneering new US research on maitake, the goal was to duplicate these successes in the U.S. Maitake Products Inc. obtained an Investigative(ional) New Drug application from the American Food & Drug Administration to conduct a Phase II pilot study on the effect of Maitake Mushroom D-fraction extract on advanced breast and prostate cancers. Scientific studies of Maitake D-Fraction are now being conducted in several U.S. research facilities. Dr. Preuss of Georgetown University is studying two other maitake extracts’ ability to regulate blood pressure and blood glucose. Dr Tazaki, a professor at New York Medical College is studying its potential for prostate cancer and a New Jersey research facility is investigating its potential uses against breast cancer.
For Mr. Shirota, whose company has proprietary rights to the D-fraction and must now fund them, these studies are a “double-check” of benefits already established in Japan. Maitake has also been found to help ameliorate side effects of chemotherapy like nausea, hair loss and pain.
Dr. Nanba studied 165 advanced cancer patients and while the study was not a blind, placebo-controlled study, the results indicated that breast, lung and liver cancers respond more favourably to maitake treatment than bone cancer, stomach cancer or leukemia.
Presenting his results in l995, Dr. Nanba noted: “Though it cannot be said that Maitake D-Fraction and tablets are the cancer cure, one can safely say they do maintain the quality of life of patients and improve the immune system, resulting in the possible remission of cancer cells with no side effects.”
A 44-year old male patient with a brain tumour was given D-fraction for four months after four months without any other medication, radiation or chemotherapy, and an MRI confirmed that the tumour the size of a chicken egg had disappeared. He had previously received four cycles of chemotherapy.
If the positive results are indeed duplicated, then the can make claims for his products accordingly. Any medical claims for a nutraceutical from the Orient, and a mushroom to boot, are sure to be scrutinised closely.
“That’s why,” says Shirota, “you have to use prestigious, independent research institutions. I cannot buy these researchers! That’s why I’m doing this in the States. It’s nothing for a company like Bristol-Myers and Johnson & Johnson, but it’s very expensive for a company of my size.”
Once the US trials are completed, Mr. Shirota expects maitake D-fraction to be used there initially in combination with traditional chemotherapy. Interestingly, maitake’s reported weight-loss properties are being tested elsewhere in the US, that is being downplayed lest the fad-prone diet field should detract from the serious hopes for maitake.
In fact, the U.S.’s National Cancer Institute joined the Japanese National Institute of Health in acknowledging maitake’s anti-HIV properties back in 1992. The American researchers felt it was as powerful as AZT, then the only government approved drug and without the nasty side effects.
In the US, over 2,000 practitioners are now dispensing maitake. Using the newer Maitake D-fraction™, a number of natural medicine practitioners in the US have also reported good results with patients with, for instance, uterine fibroids and in prostate cancer cases where chemotherapy didn’t work.
Why has there been comparatively little fanfare thus far about medicinal mushrooms? Jon Kaiser, medical director of the Jon Kaiser Wellness Center in San Francisco, explains:
“While there are good research studies outside America, few are done here because a natural product can’t be patented. The only studies that get good publicity here are those done at major medical centres. These tend to be funded by drug companies who stand to make millions of dollars. There can be a tremendous amount of research done in Japan on this, but it really never makes it into the mainstream literature.”
Mark Kaylor, a herbalist in private practice in California and a consultant for Maitake Products Inc., believes there are various reasons we haven’t heard more about medicinal mushrooms:
“I think a lot has to do with inherent biases, the way physicians are educated. You don’t go to med school and come away saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to to use mushrooms in my practice.’ Mushrooms, particularly in the West, come with certain connotations whereas in the East they were very highly prized. The Reishi mushroom was once called the ‘Mushroom of Immortality’ and there was a period in Chinese history when only the Emperor’s family was allowed to eat it. So culturally, obviously there’s a different level of acceptance and view of what these mushrooms can do.
“In the West, that has never really happened. Also, physicians—less so now but it’s still happening—are just not inclined to look at these natural alternatives, regardless of what the research may be. There are a variety of forces out there which I think would prefer them not to be successful and not to be reported on.”
Kaylor believes the overblown and all-embracing claims made for kombucha (which technically is not a mushroom anyway) don’t help credibility either.
“It tends to confuse things. People hear something and go off and try it and say, ‘Hey, my hair didn’t grow back, kombucha didn’t work.’ But sometimes they extrapolate that to, ‘Well, herbs don’t work.’
“So it’s real important that we keep our perspective on these things. We don’t need to make the grandiose claims. It’s not that maitake D-fraction is going to cure everybody’s cancer or even work, necessarily, in everybody’s situation. It’s that we do know that maitake D-fraction has a very positive action in stimulating the body’s immune system. Which is useable in any sort of immune deficency.”
And the holistic and Eastern approach even to cancer is to tackle the underfunctioning immune system. Like many of his peers, Kaylor is excited about the pilot studies.
“To me one of the hardest things about it now is knowing that I have something that is very useful for people, yet you can’t get up and say. I really want people to know about it and have this information available to them.”
Daily Telegraph, UK, 1999
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