Magic Mushrooms?

June 30, 2013

This week, I read a fascinating article in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicinesummarized nicely by the Huffington Post. The article was co-authored by a fantastically talented colleague, Dr. Jennifer Reetz, a board-certified veterinary radiologist who is on the staff at Penn Vet. The article details the surprising finding that dogs diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer known as hemangiosarcoma, when given a compound derived from a specific type of mushroom, had longer survival times than with any other previously reported treatment for this form of cancer.

Hemangiosarcoma is a very aggressive, often fatal, form of cancer that develops within the cells that line blood vessels. Particular dog breeds such as Golden retrievers and German shepherds are predisposed to this cancer, but it can occur in any dog (usually large-breed dogs.) This fast-growing, invasive cancer often infiltrates the spleen, liver and sometimes even the heart. Without treatment, dogs diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma often live less than three months. Surgery and chemotherapy typically only improve life expectancy in dogs by a few additional months; these aggressive treatments offer little chance of a cure.

In Dr. Reetz’s study, dogs given no treatment other than an extract derived from the mushroom Coriolus versicolor lived a median of 199 days. Astonishing! In eight years of practice, I’ve seen so many dogs succumb to hemangiosarcoma, while heartbroken owners watched, helplessly, knowing that effective treatments were not available for this horrific disease.

There are some limitations to this study; this groundbreaking research involved a very small sample size (15 dogs.) It’s important to note that the dogs in this study were not cured by Coriolus versicolor; however, the treatment drastically improved survival times while eliminating any negative side effects from chemotherapy. In veterinary medicine, we look for treatment options that keep our patients’ quality of life at the forefront. Uniformly, we avoid aggressive surgical and medical treatments that do more harm than good, especially when a patient has a poor prognosis regardless of treatment. Certainly, more research is needed on the efficacy of Coriolus versicolor and other mushrooms, but certainly this initial study is a beacon of hope for owners of dogs afflicted with hemangiosarcoma, and for veterinarians who have been losing the battle against this cancer.