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Smallpox Defense May Be Found in Mushrooms

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some researchers say they're rediscovering the medicinal properties of the mushroom, and one expert says they can actually provide a defense against bioterrorism, as Tom Banse reports.

(Soundbite of crow cawing)

TOM BANSE reporting:

Deep in the woods southwest of Seattle lies a thriving mail-order business. Fungi Perfecti produces gourmet mushrooms and medicinal mushroom extracts in a complex of growth houses and laboratories.

(Soundbite of humming machinery)

Mr. PAUL STAMETS (Fungi Perfecti): Ah, shiitake!

This a gourmet Japanese black mushroom.

BANSE: Paul Stamets is a bearded, bespectacled entrepreneur. He picks his way through damp and dimly lit shelves.

Mr. STAMETS: Watch your step. It's wet in here. It's a very high-humidity environment.

BANSE: Stamets learned over the years that mushrooms have potent medicinal qualities. His curiosity was spurred to a new level by the anthrax attacks on the East Coast late in 2001.

Mr. STAMETS: So it came to me to be very clear that if you wanted to fight anthrax, tapping into some of the antibiotical systems that these mushrooms produce would be a logical first step.

BANSE: Stamets knows humans and mushrooms have something in common: They both get attacked by some of the same nasty microbes. He reasoned that it'd be worthwhile to look at mushrooms that put up the strongest defense. That led him to a rare type that grows on 500-year-old trees in the Pacific Northwest.

Mr. STAMETS: And because they're in the old-growth forest, in--under such wet conditions, I'm real curious in how can something stay in the woods for so long and not rot? So I thought, well, that's a good group to look at.

BANSE: The wood conch group, also known as agaricon, is not your typical mushroom.

Mr. STAMETS: I have some over here.

BANSE: You can look over there.

Mr. STAMETS: Yeah.

BANSE: Now let's get up and...

Stamets lifts a dried wood conch off a shelf.

Mr. STAMETS: It looks like a beehive. That's what I try to tell people, is that if you look up in the woods and you see this thing that looks like a beehive but it's not, hanging from a tree, that's what I'm interested in.

BANSE: Paul Stamets cultured numerous strains in his lab and prepared natural extracts.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BANSE: He then submitted samples to the Defense Department's BioShield program for testing. They went to a top-security US Army lab at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Their scientists are screening tens of thousands of natural and manmade compounds. Drug discovery supervisor John Secrist says the mushroom extract scored one of the rare hits.

Mr. JOHN SECRIST (Drug Discovery Supervisor): There is consistent activity in this one type of mushroom against viruses related to smallpox. They're not smallpox virus itself, but they're related to it. So that in itself is very interesting.

BANSE: Interesting, and as Paul Stamets realized, important, because the US government lists smallpox among the biological agents it most fears terrorists might use.

Mr. STAMETS: In the queue are well-known viruses that we all know about, but pox viruses rank at the very, very top.

BANSE: Stamets filed for patents on the extract and the process used to make it, and then he sought partners to help him commercialize a mushroom-based anti-viral drug. Boston investor John Norris, who formerly served as the number two in the FDA, was interested.

Mr. JOHN NORRIS (Investor): Not everybody is either able or willing to be vaccinated, so a therapy is needed as well. A therapy would allow for people who have been exposed or who have contracted the disease to prevent its increase within their systems.

BANSE: Norris sees potential to sell hundreds of millions of doses to the American, British and German germ warfare defense stockpiles. First, the anti-smallpox drug has to prove itself in animal trials and then get FDA approval. That typically takes years and often the leap from test tube to human doesn't pan out. Given the high stakes here, the mushroom partners are hopeful their drug will beat the odds.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse in Olympia, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Banse covers business, environment, public policy, human interest and national news across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be heard during "Morning Edition," "Weekday," and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.