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Mushrooms at the U

By Pauline Oo

From eNews, December 16, 2004

Mushrooms are more than just a fungus that sprouts rapidly, especially in damp, dark places. They make a tasty topping for pizza, a delightful addition to pasta or a vegetable stir-fry dish, and a likely treatment for cancer.

In Japan and China, mushrooms have been used for centuries to treat various diseases. But in the United States, they're sought after for their culinary value. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are looking to change that, putting certain mushrooms under the microscope.

David McLaughlin, professor of plant biology and curator of fungi at the Bell Museum of Natural History, and Joel Slaton, assistant professor of urologic surgery, have teamed up to test whether porcini and shiitake mushrooms have anticancer properties. Another team member, graduate student Bryn Dentinger, is helping to map the genetic structure of these mushrooms, in particular the porcini--there are more than 30 species, all looking pretty much the same-so the researchers can precisely identify those with the chemicals that may ward off cancer.

Slaton is also studying two other types of mushrooms: reishi and turkey tail. He says that in high doses, extracts from the reishi mushroom can inhibit cancer growth, and the goal now is to figure out how it all works. Tests have shown that the extract affects how cancer cells divide and how they invade surrounding tissue.

With the turkey tail mushroom, Slaton and other University researchers want to know if extract from this fungus can help breast cancer patients boost and maintain their body's immune response following radiation therapy. During the clinical trial, which will begin next spring, the extract will be given to participants in conjunction with traditional breast cancer treatments. The researchers will measure whether the tumors shrink and if the women experience less fatigue and a better quality of life after taking the mushroom extract. While the clinical trial involves breast cancer, Slaton says the results may have implications for prostate cancer patients as well.

Greg Plotnikoff, Slaton's colleague at the U's Center for Spirituality and Healing, is studying whether a formula that comprises four herbs and a mushroom will reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes in menopausal women. This formula is prescribed by nearly all obstetricians or gynecologists in Japan, having been approved for prescription in the country for 27 years. It is covered by the national health plan, and more than 400 million doses have been prescribed since 1994. A 13-week study in the United States will involve 180 healthy Twin Cities women who are experiencing menopause.

"Medicinal mushrooms have been used as a food supplement for many years, yet there is no basic-science research in this country studying them," says Slaton. The studies being conducted by University researchers, he says, may provide the basis for investigations in the future.