Chinese scientists have found evidence that cordyceps militaris, one of the many traditional Chinese medicines widely used for its healing powers, carries anticancer activities by identifying a dual biosynthesis of two anticancer compounds in the fungus.
The two compounds are cordycepin and pentostatin. The former was first identified from cordyceps militaris in 1950 but its synthesis mechanism had remained unknown. The latter was first identified from a bacterium and was developed as a commercial drug to treat leukemia and cancers in the 1990s.
"For the first time, we decoded the biosynthesis mechanism of cordycepin in the fungus and during the research we discovered pentostatin just by chance," said Wang Chengshu, head of the research team at the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology, a branch of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"These two compounds coexist in fungal cells in the form of protector and protégé. That is to say, cordycepin is synthetized with the coupled production of pentostatin to protect the stability of the former," he said.
A paper about the team's findings after nearly eight years of research was published on the website of Cell Chemical Biology, an international journal, on Thursday.
Cordyceps fungi are popular in China for its widely believed immunity-enhancing and energy-strengthening properties. Their uses in medical treatment dates back to the Compendium of Materia Medica, a book widely deemed the bible of traditional Chinese medicine written in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
"Arguments have been going on for years whether such fungi are antibacterial or anticancer and people use them based on experience in most cases. It's a major progress that our team scientifically proved that cordyceps militaris really carries such properties," said Guo Jinhua, Party secretary of the institute.