History of Medicinal Mushroom Research
The scientific interest in health benefits of medicinal mushrooms followed their millennial use in traditional medicine. Modern scientific research of medicinal mushrooms started in the 1950s, after the systematic gathering of experiences and knowledge of their traditional use. Early research mostly focused on using medicinal mushrooms for cancer; antiviral research increased dramatically in the 1980s, since the onset of the AIDS epidemic in 1981.
Naturally, following the much stronger traditions of using mushrooms in traditional medicine in the Far East, we might expect that the scientific research originated there. However, it started roughly at the same time in the Far East (primarily Japan and China) and the USA; some of the most important works were done in early international collaborations.
Certainly, most research was done in the Far East and contemporary research still mostly comes from Japan and China. However, scientists all around the world are now increasingly contributing.
The research progressed from early in vitro (on human and animal cell cultures) experiments, to in vivo (on test animals), and finally to human clinical trials. It found many active ingredients of medicinal mushrooms, analyzed their chemical composition and pharmacological activity.
As of 2013, medicinal mushroom researchers have published more than 50,000 papers and 400 clinical studies. We now know of more than 850 mushroom species with definite healing activity.
Medicinal Mushroom Research is a Multidisciplinary, Expanding Effort
Medicinal mushroom research is increasingly multidisciplinary: published research fills international magazines in the field of medicine (oncology, immunology, virology…), pharmacology, biology, and biotechnology. The research seems to grow exponentially with major medical and life sciences databases (such as Medline, PubMed; but also Google Scholar) now storing and indexing research data from more than 50,000 research papers and 400 clinical studies; and more than 15,000 patents.
In 1999, professors Solomon Wasser, Shu-Ting Chang and Takashi Mizuno founded the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms (Begell House, New York) which publishes the newest research.
To get a glimpse of the massive scope and interest in this field just google the term medicinal mushrooms or the name of an important species, like Ganoderma lucidum (reishi), Lentinus edodes (shiitake), Grifola frondosa (maitake). You’ll get millions of results.
The major centers of research have been the National Cancer Center in Tokyo, leading Japanese universities, the Chinese Academy of Science, the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, leading Chinese universities in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the National Cancer Institute in the USA, larger American universities, and many others.
But the field is enormous and the research is just starting. We know about 850 medicinal mushroom species, but just a tiny fraction has ever been tested. Even the total number of fungal species is unknown; we estimate there are 3.5-5.1 million (O’Brien et al.; 2005). Most are still undiscovered. And scientists estimate that by the current rate of scientific research into medicinal potential of healing mushrooms it might take us about 4,000 years until we get a complete picture. (S.P. Wasser, 2013)