People have been eating mushrooms, and using them for medicinal purposes, since the dawn of human history. But only in the last 30 years or so have mushrooms become a focus of serious scientific research. One of the pioneers in this field is Prof. Solomon Wasser of Haifa University, who runs a mushroom research lab and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms.
Today, the use of medicinal mushrooms is particularly common in the Far East, to the point where in Japan, it has become a standard line of cancer treatment, alongside surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Wasser's lab is now studying several promising medicinal products derived from mushrooms, though so far, he has only tested them on animals rather than human beings.
About six months ago, the lab took out a patent on one of these products, which is derived from Cyathus striatus, a mushroom found in Israeli forests. In animal trials, the drug appeared effective against pancreatic cancer, which is considered a particularly lethal cancer for which no new drugs have been discovered in recent years.
Another study done in his lab about a decade ago found that the Lingzhi mushroom, also known as Ganoderma lucidum, has medicinal value in treating breast and prostate cancer. This mushroom contains ingredients that suppress the activity of the NF-KappaB protein, which plays an important role in the cell divisions that encourage cancerous growths.
Some of the lab's research is done in conjunction with the Mycolivia company from Kfar Yedidya, which has been developing mushroom-based food additives for the last three years. The company grows medicinal mushrooms in China on the basis of the lab's findings.
The lab has found two mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus and Pleurotus eryngii, that are useful in lowering bad cholesterol (LDL ). Both mushrooms grow in various parts of Israel, including the Gilboa Hills and the south. Wasser said that ingredients derived from mushrooms are also what led to the development of statins, which are today the largest class of anti-cholesterol drugs.
"Medicinal materials are developed mainly from mushrooms that can be grown in commercial quantities, because otherwise the discovery doesn't have much meaning," he noted.
Over the past 20 years, Wasser's lab has also amassed a living collection of 1,500 different types of mushrooms that have medicinal potential worth studying. "Unfortunately, we haven't yet found funding to preserve this rare collection," he said.
The effort to expand this collection has also led to the discovery of previously unknown types of mushrooms. "Just in hunting through the Beit Oren Forest behind Haifa University, I found six strains that were new to science," he said.
But despite the health value of many mushrooms, Wasser warned against do-it-yourself collecting. "Only a minority of mushrooms are edible; the majority are poisonous," he explained.
He also warned that mushroom-based food additives aren't advisable in every situation. For instance, he said, people undergoing an organ transplant should avoid these additives before and after the operation, because their effect on the immune system could reduce the chances of the body accepting the transplant.