Mushroom mycelium produces life changing bioactive compounds not available in any other naturally occurring substance. 

These compounds are so important to alleviating health complications that they are frequently used in some of the most prescribed drugs in North America, like statins and antibiotics.

How are Pharmaceuticals Based on Mycelium?

Mushroom mycelium consists of millions of filament-like threads, an underground network supporting the entire lifecycle of a mushroom (including the growth of fruiting bodies and eventually mushroom spores). 

The underground network is where the magic happens. 

Mycelium absorbs and metabolizes nutrients from the growth environment that facilitate the remainder of the mushroom lifecycle (The spores dropped by mature fruiting bodies eventually enable mushrooms to reproduce). In this metabolic process, the mycelium secretes enzymes back into the growth environment to further break down and absorb nutrients. 

The enzymes secreted into the growth environment are left behind, depositing novel bioactive compounds into the surrounding environment. These compounds can be extracted from the substrate and used to create life saving pharmaceuticals.

Mycelium woodcut

What Role Does Mushroom Mycelium Play in Pharmaceuticals?

The bioactive compounds secreted by mycelium are referred to as secondary metabolites

Secondary metabolites are produced by mushroom mycelium as a frontline defence against other microbes or other fungi (e.g. moulds) that could threaten the mushroom growth cycle. That’s something that all plants, and even animals, share with fungi. All these kingdoms of life feature secondary metabolism. Approximately 500,000 secondary metabolites from fungi, plants, and animals have been described to date.

Mould in petri dish

The discovery of ‘new’ fungal metabolites has accelerated since the early 2000s. Perhaps not surprisingly, many new pharmaceuticals have been discovered through studies in fungal chemistry. Mushroom mycelium has been particularly important in the development of therapies for cancer, malaria, bacterial and fungal infections, neurological and cardiovascular diseases, and autoimmune disorders.

Pharmaceutical Drugs Based on Mycelium

The following three pharmaceutical drugs were amongst the first to rely on fungal mycelium to improve human health.

Lovastatin

Identified in 1970 from a fermentation broth of Aspergillus terreus, Lovastatin revolutionized medical care for individuals living with high cholesterol.  

While lovastatin was first identified in A. terreus, it is also produced by the oyster mushroom. It’s thought that dry oyster mushrooms and their mycelium contain up to 2.8% lovastatin.

Discovery of Lovastatin enabled drug manufacturer Merck to create synthetic lovastatin alternative, simvastatin. Lovastatin is the top-selling pharmaceutical of all time. (It will soon be outpaced by semaglutide sales – in a notably shorter period of time.)

Cyclosporine

Like Lovastatin, Cyclosporine is naturally occurring in soil. Cyclosporine is produced during the mycelial stage of fungal growth by Tolypocladium inflatum

First discovered in 1969, this was the first fungal metabolite used to regulate the growth and function of mammalian cells. Cyclosporines are vital to treating autoimmune conditions and to reduce instances of rejection after organ transplants. 

Variations of Cyclosporine are now synthetically produced by Novartis for their potent anti-inflammatory, immunosuppressive, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic properties.  

Penicillin

Penicillin, considered the first true antibiotic, is a secondary metabolite produced by Penicillium notatum. First discovered as a contaminant in a lab experiment, penicillin quickly changed how physicians treated infectious disease. 

Produced by mushroom mycelium, Penicillin grows best and most quickly in a fermentation environment. When extracted from the mycelium, Penicillin is used as an antibiotic. Dried Penicillium mycelium serves as an inexpensive source of protein in animal diets. 

Semisynthetic penicillins are now widely distributed alongside their traditional versions, including piperacillin, amoxicillin, and ampicillin.

Chunk of penicillin

What Does the Future Have in Store for Mycelium in Pharmaceuticals?

The study and use of the secondary metabolites from mycelium is growing year-by-year.  

The novel compounds from mycelium are now studied for use in a variety of clinical applications. However, as of today, few applications have been approved by the FDA. 

That doesn’t stop ambitious research into the potential for myceliated products. 

Microscope slide containing tissue cells
As an Alternative to Tissue Engineering

The application of mycelium as a biomaterial to assist in post-surgical healing is underway. 

Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) and Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster mushroom) have been studied for their effectiveness in tissue engineering as dermal substitutes. These mushrooms offer significant potential as self-growing bio-composites that mimic the extracellular matrix of human body tissues. This study used the entire fibrous structures of mycelia as an alternative to tissue engineering.

As a Novel Drug Delivery System

Studies applying nanoparticles from mushroom species including Almond, Oyster, and Reishi mushrooms demonstrate potential as novel drug delivery systems. 

When applied as nanocarriers, the molecules provide a source of encapsulated therapeutic drugs at a targeted disease location. Drug delivery using nanoparticles of edible mushrooms is considered minimally invasive as a novel drug application.

Important Industry Acknowledgements of Mushrooms & Mycelium

Health advocates readily promote the value and role of functional mushrooms in healing.

The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation published extensive summaries of applications of myceliated Lion’s Mane as neuroprotective support. 

The National Cancer Institute provided data on the research applications of Turkey Tail and Reishi mushrooms for supporting cancer treatment. Turkey Tail was approved by the FDA for clinical trials in Cancer patients in 2012. 

Strengthening Human Health – Naturally

From an ecological perspective, mycelium is a great adaptor – colonizing virtually all habitats on the planet. Myclieum’s ability to produce secondary metabolites in collaboration with other life forms is unparalleled. Fungi depend on their capacity to produce secondary metabolites to grow and sustain their existence in diverse habitats. Most species of fungi produce multiple types of secondary metabolites, suggesting significant portions of their genetics are dedicated to producing these compounds. 

Pharmaceutical companies are intently studying this phenomenon, and dedicating resources to creating environments in which mycelium and mushrooms can grow. 

Any regulated product relying on mushroom mycelium requires large amounts of high-quality mycelium for testing and continuous, consistent production. Pharmaceuticals, in particular, rely on cGMP to ensure that drug production never varies and the results are consistent time-after-time. 

Myceliated products produced indoors in a GMP setting are thought to be the ‘wave of the future’. These growing conditions ensure standardized quality and year around production.