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Rare parasitic fungi could have anti-flammatory benefits

16 November 2012

Caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps) are rare parasites found on hibernating caterpillars in the mountains of Tibet. For centuries they have been highly prized as a traditional Chinese medicine - just a small amount can fetch hundreds of pounds.

Caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps) sliced. Daniel Winkler

Caterpillar fungi (Cordyceps) sliced.
Image: Daniel Winkler

Scientists, at The University of Nottingham, co-funded by BBSRC have been studying how this fungus could work by studying cordycepin, one of the drugs found in these mushrooms. They have already discovered that cordycepin has potential as a cancer drug. Their new work indicates that it could also have anti-inflammatory characteristics with the potential to help sufferers of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, renal failure and stroke damage.

The research, published today in the academic journal RNA, was led by Dr Cornelia de Moor in the School of Pharmacy. It shows that cordycepin reduces inflammatory gene products in airway smooth muscle cells - the cells that contract during an asthma attack.

Several studies have suggested that cordycepin could be an effective drug for a variety of conditions, including cancer, stroke, kidney damage and inflammatory lung disease but until now it was unclear how cordycepin could bring about so many different beneficial effects at the cellular level.

Finding hibernating caterpillars in the mountains of Tibet. Image: Daniel Winkler

Finding hibernating caterpillars in the mountains of Tibet. Image: Daniel Winkler

Dr de Moor said: "We have shown that cordycepin reduces the expression of inflammatory genes in airway smooth muscle cells by acting on the final step in the synthesis of their messenger RNAs (mRNAs) which carry the chemical blueprint for the synthesis of proteins. This process is called polyadenylation. Commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs either work much earlier in the activation of inflammatory genes, such as prednisone, or work on one of the final products of the inflammatory reaction (e.g. ibuprofen).These findings indicate that cordycepin acts by a completely different mechanism than currently used anti-inflammatory drugs, making it a potential drug for patients in which these drugs don't work well.

"However, it is a surprise that cordycepin does not affect the synthesis of mRNAs from other genes, because nearly all mRNAs require polyadenylation."

Dr de Moor's research suggests that this is because inflammatory genes can be very rapidly induced and that cordycepin has its many and varied effects by altering the synthesis of other classes of rapidly induced genes as well. If this is true if could be said that cordycepin slows down the rapid cellular responses to tissue damage and may work by preventing the over-activation of these responses which are associated with conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, renal failure, cancer and stroke damage.

However, it also indicates that cordycepin could have adverse effects on normal wound healing and on the natural defences against infectious diseases.

Dr de Moor said: "We are hoping to further investigate which genes are more dependent on polyadenylation than others and why this is the case, as well as test the effect of cordycepin on animal models of disease. Clinical testing of cordycepin is not in our immediate plans, as we think we first have to understand this drug in more detail before we can risk treating patients with it."

Cordyceps in ground exposed. Image: Daniel Winkler

Cordyceps in ground exposed.
Image: Daniel Winkler

Additional funding has been awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to continue this vital work.

A copy of the paper is available online at http://rnajournal.cshlp.org/content/early/2012/10/29/rna.032391.112.full.pdf+html

ENDS

About The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as 'the embodiment of the modern international university', has 42,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is also the most popular university in the UK by 2012 application numbers, and 'the world's greenest university'. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University aims to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fund-raising campaign, will deliver the University's vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future.

More news: www.nottingham.ac.uk/news
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About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Dr Cornelia de Moor, The University of Nottingham

tel: 0115 951 5041

Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager, The University of Nottingham

tel: 0115 951 5751