Medicinal Mushrooms and Cancer Therapy: translating a traditional practice into Western medicine

Modern medical practice relies heavily on the use of highly purified pharmaceutical compounds whose purity can be easily assessed and whose pharmaceutical activity and toxicity show clear structure-function relationships. In contrast, many herbal medicines contain mixtures of natural compounds that have not undergone detailed chemical analyses and whose mechanism of action is not known. Traditional folk medicine and ethno-pharmacology coupled to bioprospecting have been an important source of many anticancer agents as well as other medicines. With the current decline in the number of new molecular entities from the pharmaceutical industry, novel anticancer agents are being sought from traditional medicine. As the example of medicinal mushrooms demonstrates, however, translating traditional Eastern practices into acceptable evidence-based Western therapies is difficult. Different manufacturing standards, criteria of purity, and under-powered clinical trials make assessment of efficacy and toxicity by Western standards of clinical evidence difficult. Purified bioactive compounds derived from medicinal mushrooms are a potentially important new source of anticancer agents; their assimilation into Western drug discovery programs and clinical trials also provides a framework for the study and use of other traditional medicines.