Researchers at The University of Nottingham have discovered how a promising cancer drug, first discovered in a mushroom commonly used in Chinese medicine, works.

Dr. Cornelia de Moor of The University of Nottingham and her team have investigated the drug called cordycepin, which was originally extracted from a rare kind of wild mushroom called cordyceps and is now prepared from a cultivated form.

“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,” Dr. Moor said.

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.

“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,” Dr. Moor said.

The researchers have 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.

The study is to be published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.