(NaturalNews) Researchers from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville have discovered that a species of fungus naturally produces nanoparticles capable of boosting the immune system and killing tumors. Their findings were published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
"This exciting discovery is the first step forward in the development of natural nanoparticle-based therapeutics for cancer treatment and demonstrates the importance of looking to nature for innovation in disease treatment," lead researcher Mingjun Zhang said.
The fungus, Arthrobotrys oligospora, naturally feeds on roundworm. The researchers were studying its mechanisms for trapping its prey when they noticed that among the chemicals secreted by A. oligospora are nanocomposites composed of nearly identical nanoparticles. Because nanoparticles are currently an area of intense interest in cancer research, this finding immediately caught the researchers' attention.
"Naturally occurring nanoparticles have drawn increasing interest from scientific communities for their biocompatibility," Zhang said. "Due to their high surface-to-volume ratio, nanoparticles have demonstrated unique optical, thermal and electronic properties. In addition, their small size allows them to easily cross cell membranes, an essential requirement for cancer therapy."
The researchers conducted an in vitro study to test the nanoparticles' effect on the immune system. They found that upon contact with the nanoparticles, a white blood cell line began to secrete an immune-system stimulant.
In a second experiment, the researchers exposed two separate malignant tumor cell lines to the nanoparticles. In both cases, the fungal nanoparticles killed the cancer cells.
The studies were funded by the Biochemistry Program of the U.S. Army Research Office's Life Sciences Division.
"A gold mine" for cancer treatment
Zhang, whose research focuses on finding solutions to human problems in the natural world, said it makes sense that many organisms would have evolved their own mechanisms for fighting a variety of diseases, including cancer. The findings from the A. oligospora study might have already provided a new cancer treatment in the form of the nanoparticles, he said.
"We can use this finding in the particle directly to cure the cancer," said Zhang. "Also, this can provide another opportunity to provide a template for future or next generation synthesis."
In addition, the findings could ultimately lead to new materials and therapies.
"This study could be the entrance into a gold mine of new materials to treat cancers," he said. "Understanding how these nanostructures are formed in the natural systems will also provide templates for the synthesis of a future generation of engineered nanostructures for biomedical applications."
A. oligospora is not the first fungus to yield promising cancer treatments. Fungi in the Pestalotiopsis genus produce the widely used cancer drug Taxol, although the drug itself was originally derived from Pacific Yew trees and is now synthesized artificially.
Likewise, the parasitic Cordyceps fungi of Tibet, known as caterpillar fungus, produce a chemical known as cordycepin which has also shown promise as an anti-cancer drug. These fungi have long had an esteemed place in traditional Chinese medicine, but only recently have Western scientists begun to study their medicinal properties.