Mushrooms are complex, in that they can either benefit you, kill you, or cause any effect in between; all depending on which one you eat. The problem is, sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. When purchasing cultivated gourmet mushrooms, you can rest easy in the knowledge that they aren’t poisonous, but with wild mushrooms more caution is needed. Poisonous mushrooms often look similar to delicious ones, causing an abundance of accidental mushroom poisonings. In fact, the deadliest mushroom, the Amanita Phalloides; more commonly called the Death Cap, is often confused for the edible Puffball. Perhaps it’s this confusion that causes the high amount of suspected Death Cap poisonings every year. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all deadly mushroom poisonings are caused by Death Caps. It’s just too bad they don’t grow with a skull and crossbone imprint.
Part of what makes Death Caps so deadly is the fact that there is no known antidote. There are some possible treatments: lots of fluids to help flush it out, and milk thistle extract which helps protects the against liver damage. Even with treatment, however, there’s no guarantee of survival. Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Death Cap poisonings end in death.
Just because you feel fine after eating a suspicious mushroom doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Symptoms of Death Cap poisoning are often delayed, sometimes up to a full 24 hours after the mushroom was eaten. The first problems to show up are abdominal pain, upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting. Drinking enough fluids might help ease these symptoms, but the easing of symptoms is deceptive, as the kidneys and liver are still in danger. Even once someone starts to feel better, they can experience organ failure, fall into a coma, or even die.
It’s the Phalloides’ ability for complete destruction that has drawn the interest of researchers like David Perrin. The trait that makes amanitin --the main toxin in Amanita Phalloides-- so deadly is its ability to stop cells from processing, causing them to die. After some studies, it was discovered that it also has a penchant for destroying cancer cells, even dormant ones that typical treatments don’t touch.
While the studies have been promising, there have also been struggles along the way. Cultivating Amanita Phalloides in farms has not been accomplished yet, so researchers have been relying on what can be harvested from the wild. Unfortunately, to get the amount of toxin needed, it takes several pounds of mushrooms. The solution seemed obvious: synthesize the toxin, but it’s proven more complicated than that.
The toxin is made up of three main parts, one of which disintegrates as soon as it comes into contact with air. This was proving difficult for the team until in 2016 Perrin read a paper that changed everything. A lab in San Diego had used an atom of boron to stabilize tryptophan while it was being oxidized. Using a similar technique, Perrin’s students- Kaveh Matinkhoo and Alla Pryyma- were able to complete a full synthetic copy of amanitin.
Work is ongoing, but it’s likely that the hardest step is behind them. Powerful new medicines could be coming onto the market in future years. Many more hurdles are sure to come, but it’s possible that mushrooms could be the answer to defeating cancer.
I’ve mentioned mushrooms possibly being used in medicines before, but never in such a scope as this. What are your thoughts? Do you think the most deadly mushroom could end up saving lives?