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Cordyceps for Cancer?

December 26th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

A few weeks ago, there was a news story about smugglers arrested for bringing in Cordyceps sinesis specimens into India. (http://qi-spot.com/2009/11/26/cordyceps-smugglers-arrested/).  Cordyceps is traditionally used for strengthening the Lung, and thus, immunity.  Apparently it is also useful for cancer.

An episode of “House, MD” (season 4 episode 6, “Whatever It Takes”) has Dr. Greg House mentioning that Cordyceps sinesis has been used experimentally to treat cancer in monkeys.  I applauded this recognition of Cordyceps in the ordinarily traditional medicine-hostile program (see season 1 episode 20, “Love Hurts”) but let’s get the facts out in the open:

First, the article with comments:

New Insights Into Mushroom-Derived Drug Promising for Cancer Treatment (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091223094729.htm)

ScienceDaily (Dec. 24, 2009) — A promising cancer drug, first discovered in a mushroom commonly used in Chinese medicine, could be made more effective thanks to researchers who have discovered how the drug works. The research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and was carried out at The University of Nottingham.

Ho ho, no evil sheriff?  I’m just wondering how knowing how it works makes it “more” effective.

In research to be published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Dr Cornelia de Moor of The University of Nottingham and her team have investigated a drug called cordycepin, which was originally extracted from a rare kind of wild mushroom called cordyceps and is now prepared from a cultivated form.

Dr de Moor said: “Our discovery will open up the possibility of investigating the range of different cancers that could be treated with cordycepin. We have also developed a very effective method that can be used to test new, more efficient or more stable versions of the drug in the Petri dish. This is a great advantage as it will allow us to rule out any non-runners before anyone considers testing them in animals.”

Oh no, once again western medicine wants to concentrate on a leaf instead of the whole tree… on one plant instead of the whole forest.  They want to isolate one ingredient from the whole package in the cordyceps plant.  Instinctively one might say, “what’s wrong with that?”  Well, the concept is similar to macrobiotics: you go for the whole food instead of the individual nutrient.  Tamiflu is derived partly from the shikimic acid found in star anise, and it is known for toxicity (even if rarely).  On the other hand, star anise is ALSO used for flu and is so much more relatively safe that it is used as a flavoring spice in everyday dishes.  The difference? Perhaps the whole package is more well balanced than just taking an individual isolated component!

Cordyceps is a strange parasitic mushroom that grows on caterpillars (see image). Properties attributed to cordyceps mushroom in Chinese medicine made it interesting to investigate and it has been studied for some time. In fact, the first scientific publication on cordycepin was in 1950. The problem was that although cordycepin was a promising drug, it was quickly degraded in the body. It can now be given with another drug to help combat this, but the side effects of the second drug are a limit to its potential use.

Sweet Mother of God.  This is precisely my point.  Can’t we just use the whole herb itself? Unlike Ganoderma, it is easier to grow in culture.

As we can see here, the typical ugly head of western pharmacology peeks from the shadows.  Instead of taking the herb as a whole, they isolate the ingredient cordycepin.  Unfortunately Cordycepin doesn’t last long in the body.  But obviously, it does so when in original cordyceps form!  Kinda like eating only the seaweed wrapper in sushi.  But instead of admitting to the wonderful balance in mother nature, we try to screw things up by manipulating the medicine even more.  So western pharma does what it does best: add another drug.  Then side effects… then add another drug… and another… and another…

Dr de Moor continued: “Because of technical obstacles and people moving on to other subjects, it’s taken a long time to figure out exactly how cordycepin works on cells. With this knowledge, it will be possible to predict what types of cancers might be sensitive and what other cancer drugs it may effectively combine with. It could also lay the groundwork for the design of new cancer drugs that work on the same principle.”

The team has observed two effects on the cells: at a low dose cordycepin inhibits the uncontrolled growth and division of the cells and at high doses it stops cells from sticking together, which also inhibits growth. Both of these effects probably have the same underlying mechanism, which is that cordycepin interferes with how cells make proteins. At low doses cordycepin interferes with the production of mRNA, the molecule that gives instructions on how to assemble a protein. And at higher doses it has a direct impact on the making of proteins.

On the other hand, I applaud the fact that this research is being taken seriously.  Once more understanding is gleaned as to how these things work, it will be less easy for blind skeptics to dismiss the power of Chinese medicine.


Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. “New Insights Into Mushroom-Derived Drug Promising for Cancer Treatment.” ScienceDaily 24 December 2009. 26 December 2009 <http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/12/091223094729.htm>.

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  1. January 3rd, 2010 at 01:23 | #1

    “Western Pharm does what it does best – add another drug…” So true. I’ve used star-anise ( and other herbs) in my cooking and I have not had any colds for 3 years in the winter months. Happy New Year.

  2. David
    July 16th, 2012 at 19:19 | #2

    Very well put. As soon as pharmaceuticals start tampering with nature the problems start. To stay with the mushrooms, all medicinal mushrooms I know of are without side effects, even in very high doses. Toxicity is exceptionally low (salt or sugar would kill you sooner!).
    But mushrooms as-they-are cannot be patented so no money to be made there. Next is tampering.

    There is a product called AHCC, a lab-manufactured mushroom hybrid (how and what exactly is proprietary knowledge of course) and it is the only mushroom product that has severe side effects.

    More info about Cordyceps research and other medicinal mushrooms can be found here, for those interested: http://www.oriveda.com/resources.php

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