Turkey tail mushrooms act as nonspecific immune modulators


Dear Doctors: I'm a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange. Last December, I was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. I had immunotherapy and also used turkey tail mushroom extract. All except one of the tumors shrank. Do you think the mushrooms helped?

Dear Reader: While reading your letter, we expected your question might focus on the health effects of Agent Orange, the trajectory of liver cancer or the mechanisms behind immunotherapy. But you surprised us. Instead, we’re looking at turkey tail mushrooms, a fascinating fungus found in wooded areas throughout the world. Named for their colorful, fanlike shape, which resembles a turkey’s outspread tail, these mushrooms grow on trees and fallen logs. They have a long history in traditional Chinese medicine, where they are used as a tonic and to treat lung conditions. More recently, they have caught the interest of modern researchers by exhibiting a range of health benefits. These include anti-tumor properties and support of certain types of immune response.

We’ll begin with the other topics you referred to. For those who may not be familiar, Agent Orange was an herbicide used by the United States military to control and destroy vegetation during the Vietnam War. Certain cancers and other health problems are now recognized as being associated with exposure to Agent Orange. Although liver cancer is not on the Veterans Administration’s official list at this time, that list continues to expand.

Among the treatments available for certain types of liver cancer is immunotherapy. In that instance, it works by deactivating proteins found in some types of cancer cells, which trick the immune system into ignoring the cancer. By disabling these proteins, immunotherapy drugs let the immune system do its work. And this brings us back to turkey tail mushrooms.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD
Modern research confirms that compounds found in turkey tail mushrooms have an effect on the immune system. More precisely, they act as nonspecific immune modulators. That’s a fancy way of saying that something either stimulates or suppresses immune function in a general way. In turkey tail mushrooms, the effect is to bolster immune function. A clinical trial conducted in 2012 found that breast cancer patients who took capsules of powdered turkey tail mushrooms recovered immune function after radiation therapy more quickly than those who didn’t take the capsules. Another study into breast cancer patients found the mushrooms appeared to boost the efficacy of chemotherapy. Other research suggests that compounds found in turkey tail mushrooms also have anti-tumor properties.

A preparation made from the turkey tail mushroom, known as krestin, has been used as a supportive therapy in cancer treatment in Japan for decades. This includes not only breast cancer, but lung, gastric, pancreatic and liver cancer as well. Despite decades of study, the mechanisms at work here remain unclear.

When it comes to the success of your own cancer treatment, it would be difficult to say whether or not the mushrooms played a part. But, due to their role as immune modulators, and the fact they can cause side effects, we urge you to let your doctors know you are using them.

The UCLA Health Gastrointestinal Oncology Program delivers care through the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC). Our team of liver cancer specialists works together to determine the best care for you. Learn more and schedule an appointment.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)