Shiitake Mushrooms May Hold Cure to Tackling Pneumonia and Sepsis

With superbugs poised to become humanity’s greatest threat, exotic mushrooms may hold the key to preventing ‘global disaster’ of increasing antimicrobial resistance

With superbugs poised to become humanity’s greatest threat, shiitake mushrooms may hold the key to preventing ‘global disaster’ of increasing antimicrobial resistance - the ability of bacteria to resist the effects of a medicine previously used to treat them, that’s according to Professor Neil J Rowan, Director of the Bioscience Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology and Adjunct Professor of the School of Medicine at NUI Galway.

A five year, €600,000 joint research collaboration investigating the use of beta-1-3, 1-6-D-glucan - a naturally occurring sugar found in the cell walls of fungi - to combat chronic bacterial infections, such as sepsis and pneumonia, has led to the development of a new therapeutic innovation that could drastically improve patient care and may provide a complementary or alternative intervention to using front-line antibiotics.

“We’ve managed to successfully harness the immune-priming properties of medicinal mushrooms to treat lower respiratory tract infections caused by bacteria, such as Klebsiella pneumoniae, that possess multiple resistances to antibiotics,” Professor Rowan said.

“Pneumonia is one of the most common causes of acute lung injury and respiratory distress syndrome and accounts for 5% of deaths in Ireland - yet no specific therapy exists. Meanwhile, seven people are dying of ‘silent killer’ sepsis every day. Our findings have the capacity to radically transform our approach to dealing with antimicrobial resistance and human illness more generally.”

“The overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics has contributed to a dramatic spread of sophisticated multiple drug resistant bacterial pathogens that, if left unchecked, could cause a global disaster - In less than 30 years, antimicrobial resistance could cause even more deaths than cancer,” he explained. “The findings from this research, which exploits the immune stimulation properties of medicinal mushrooms, could be the key to addressing this increasingly global problem.”

Under the lead supervision of Professor Rowan, Emma Murphy, a doctoral candidate undertaking research at Athlone Institute of Technology, has developed the world’s first biotechnology process capable of producing high purity quantities of this fungal compound in a sterile formulation that’s suitable for intravenous usage. The team is currently in the process of exploring commercial development of the process for scale up and is also considering future needs for route to market.

Professor John Laffey, Co-Investigator and Head of Department of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine in NUI Galway, called this research a “timely development” that could be used to treat other illnesses such as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) - a severe lung disease characterized by low blood oxygen levels due to wide spread damage and loss of alveoli. “Bacterial infection is key to the development of illnesses like ARDS and is the leading cause of death in critically ill patients, so this is vital research” he explained.

Future research may be extended to exploring potential of this new therapeutic intervention to help patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and for people living with Cystic Fibrosis - a chronic lung condition that causes the over production of mucus in the lungs.

Welcoming the news, President of Athlone Institute of Technology, Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin, said: “This internationally-leading, collaborative project reflects the creativity, ingenuity and commitment of our immensely talented scientists and clinicians, and befitting our status as the number 1 institute of technology for research across the technological higher education sector, it places us at the forefront of global innovation and knowledge creation.”

Funded primarily by the Irish Health-Research Board (HRB), findings from this flagship study will be presented by Dr Claire Masterson, Lead Postdoctoral Research Fellow at NUI Galway and Emma Murphy at the prestigious American Thoracic Society Conference 2019 in Dallas, Texas next week.

An educational powerhouse defined by a commitment to academic excellence, rigour and applied education, Athlone Institute of Technology has enjoyed considerable successes in the academic arena this year, most notably being named ‘best in class’ for research across the technological higher education sector. Further solidifying its reputational prowess, the institute was recently awarded ‘Best Academic Partnership’ at the prestigious national Education Awards for its part in developing SURE, Ireland’s first academic network dedicated to promoting undergraduate STEM research across the technological higher education sector. These accolades build upon the institute’s success in winning the Sunday Times Good University Guide ‘Institute of Technology of the Year’ award in 2018 for its unwavering commitment to academic excellence and innovations in applied learning.

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