SCIENTISTS are preparing to conduct the first British clinical trials of a revolutionary drug extracted from mushrooms that is set to begin a new era in the treatment of cancer.
The drugs, which are based on a number of exotic species of fungi, are credited with dramatic benefits for stomach and bowel cancer sufferers in the Far East, with studies showing substantial increases to life expectancy rates in China and Japan.
Until now, British patients have missed out on the potential benefits from the drugs, because western researchers - particularly in the UK - have been slow to study the area.
Despite the delays, however, a team of scientists now plans to conduct trials in the UK after they convince regulators that the drugs pose no risk and are effective at treating the disease. Authorities in the United States have already certified the drugs as safe, and are expected to complete their approval in the summer.
There are 4,262 stomach and bowel cancer sufferers in Scotland. Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer and last year around 1,500 people in Scotland died from the disease. The country's tendency towards smoking and a bad diet have been blamed for the high rate.
Sufferers last night hailed the possibility of a new generation of treatment as massively exciting, although experts warned against raising hopes that could later be dashed.
A team led by Dr Bjrn Kristiansen, the CEO of Norwegian firm Medimush and who previously lectured at Strathclyde, hopes to file an application to British regulators by the summer and begin trials somewhere in the UK in October.
Dr Kristiansen said: "I would be extremely surprised if the tests are not completed by the end of the year. There is no obvious reason for the regulator to say no - there are no side-effects - so it is just a matter of time as to when we go ahead with the trials."
He added that as well as the drugs, scientists hope to develop dietary supplements that help to prevent the cancer forming in the first place.
John Smith, the emeritus professor of applied microbiology at the University of Strathclyde who has championed the treatment, said scientists in the UK had simply not taken it seriously because of its association with traditional Chinese medicine.
Professor Smith insisted the treatment was "ridiculously safe" and could ultimately form the fourth pillar of cancer treatment alongside surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Although it can prevent the early spread of cancer, the drugs cannot halt the advanced stages of the disease and in the UK would only be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy.
He added: "These drugs have had hugely positive effects on the immune system but are completely unrecognised in this part of the world.
"People treat the field with contempt - we're the only country in Europe that has got this attitude. It's got to the stage where I don't talk locally about it because there is a taboo surrounding this sort of treatment.
"But it will be an immense source of pleasure and pride to me when the trials are conducted because so many people stand to benefit. In Japan, people are systemically given the dietary supplements before, during and after stomach and bowel cancer treatment."
In order to manufacture the drugs, scientists extract from the medicinal mushrooms a substance known as beta glycans, which forms part of the internal wall in the hundreds of species, including shiitake, maitaki, pleurotus and enoki. The final drug is produced during a fermentation process, which increases the concentration of the substance that boosts the immune systems of animals and humans.
Each mushroom contains different versions of the compound, with various properties and benefits for cancer sufferers. Although the mushrooms currently in use in Japan are primarily of benefit to stomach and bowel cancer sufferers, experts believe other variants could help in the fight against other forms, including lung cancer.
Professor Smith said that due to the complexity of beta glycans, the drugs are difficult to patent because it is hard to prove an imitation is identical - a further factor preventing the development of the drugs.
Furthermore, the majority of the research has so far been published in Chinese and Japanese. Although in Japan and China there are more than 20 research units dedicated to the study of medicinal mushrooms, none yet exists in the UK.
Richard Sullivan, head of clinical development at Cancer Research UK, said a massive translation exercise was currently under way that is due to be completed by the end of the year.
He said studies in Japan had showed a 20% increase in the quality of life scores for sufferers, and it is understood other Chinese studies have shown life expectancy to increase by up to 50%.
Dr Sullivan said: "Nobody quite knows why the mushrooms are so effective in treating cancer patients, and that has been another factor preventing further development, because the research framework here that is very focused on how things work, unlike Japan."
He insisted that trials involving Cancer Research would be more likely to take place in 2008 or 2009. The trials would probably have its backing since they have public funding, although Medimush claimed it could fund the research in the UK privately, as it has in the US.
Lynn Faulds Wood, chairwoman of the European Cancer Patients Coalition who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1991, welcomed the development but warned sufferers not to get their hopes up too much.
Faulds Wood said: "I'd be delighted in anything that appears on the scene to help alleviate the suffering and reduce the number of deaths. This sounds like an extremely interesting development, although if I had a pound for every new treatment I'd heard about I'd be extremely rich by now."
A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said: "We welcome innovative treatments and medicines to treat disease. As with any new medicine being brought on to the market, safety, quality and efficacy must be demonstrated.
"We do have a responsibility to ensure that regulation is designed so as to enable rather than hinder the development of new products that could improve health. It is therefore right that we should work together with the industry to ensure that innovation can benefit patients through the development of safe and effective new drugs."
Eat your way to better health
EXPERTS believe that about a quarter of all cancer deaths are caused by diets and obesity. Many types of food have been linked to helping prevent the disease.
• Carrots contain a natural pesticide, falcarinol. The substance protects carrots from fungal diseases, such as liquorice rot, which causes black spots on the roots during storage. It is toxic in very large amounts, but scientists believe it may help humans fight the disease in liberal doses.
• Onions contain flavonoids and sulphurs. Researchers have found that moderate consumption appears to reduce the risk of colorectal, laryngeal and ovarian cancers.
• Avocados contain nature's largest source of the antioxidant lutein. Lab tests show it can inhibit rates of prostate cancer growth by up to 60%. They are also rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, including oleic acid, which have been shown to offer significant protection against breast cancer.
• Broccoli contains a compound called I3C, which can boost DNA repair in cells and may ultimately stop them becoming cancerous.
• Watermelons contain higher levels of lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable. The substance is thought to help in the fight against prostate, oesophageal and breast cancers and has been linked to a reduced risk of cervical cancer.
• Green tea is rich in polyphenols, which can inhibit an enzyme required for cancer cell growth. Scientists believe they kill cancer cells with no ill effects on healthy cells.