Saving Max with mushrooms

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PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- One in four dogs will develop cancer this year. The diagnosis can be devastating, especially for those with one of its most aggressive forms—hemangiosarcoma—that kills in less than 90 days. But now, the key to a longer life could be held in an ancient Chinese mushroom more than 2,000 years old. Also, it may not be just for man’s best friend, but man himself could benefit.

Life without their dog Max would be unimaginable for the Walter family.

“He’s very sweet. He’s a good, good buddy,” Christy Walter told Ivanhoe.

So, when Max was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of the spleen known as hemangiosarcoma, it was hard.

Max’s vet shared the grim news.

“This is how long he has. He has one to two months. There’s a trial you can try,” Christy said.

Max enrolled in a new clinical trial at Penn Vet that’s testing an ancient Chinese mushroom.

“This could be really, really major,” Dr. Dorothy Cimino-Brown, Professor of Surgery University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told Ivanhoe.

Researchers found dogs treated with a compound from the Yun Zhi mushroom, known as PSP, had the longest survival times ever reported for dogs with the deadly disease; going from a maximum two-months with no treatment, to several dogs living over a year with only the mushroom as a treatment.

“What we saw was so unexpected and so dramatic and the potential implications of it are huge,” Dr. Dorothy Cimino-Brown said.

That includes helping humans fight cancer. For now, the Walter’s are thankful for their extra time with Max.

“And it’s good time, quality time. He’s not just lying there sick,” Christy explained.

Researchers were so surprised with the results of the first study that they actually went back and looked at the biopsies to make sure the dogs had this deadly spleen cancer to begin with.

There are products with PSP on the market for human and animal consumption, but researchers caution since they are supplements; they are not regulated by the FDA.

BACKGROUND: Hemangiosarcoma (HSA) is an extremely aggressive type of cancer which affects mostly dogs, but sometimes cats. The cancer’s origins are in blood vessels; this means tumors can be present anywhere in the body blood vessels are present. The most common place for the cancer to grow is in the spleen, although it can also be seen in the heart, liver, muscles, lungs, brain, or kidneys. The disease generally comes on later in life, the average onset being around 9 or 10 years. German shepherds are the breed most commonly diagnosed with HSA, but other large breeds like Golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers are also commonly diagnosed. (Source:

SYMPTOMS: Because HSA is so aggressive, by the time symptoms begin to show, the cancer is in its advanced stages and very little can be done. These are some of the symptoms your dog might show:

• Weakness, lethargy, or collapse

• Lack of appetite

• Weight loss

• Bloated abdomen

• Nose bleeding (Source:

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Researchers at University of Pennsylvania are testing whether a compound in an ancient Chinese mushroom can help dogs beat HSA. The mushroom, called Yun Zhi, has been used in Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years. Researchers isolated a compound called polysaccharopeptide, or PSP, and began giving it to dogs with advanced HSA. The dogs given the compound daily showed the longest times ever recorded for advanced HSA. Some dogs were able to live more than a year on simply the compound. The next step is testing whether the compound has similar effects in humans (Source:

Dr. Dorothy Cimino Brown, Professor of Surgery at University Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Ryan Veterinary Hospital, talks about a possible new treatment for cancer in dogs

Where did the idea come from to actually give these mushrooms to canine?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: I have an interest in complementary and alternative therapies in dogs. Dogs don’t have the psychological overlay which causes problems in studying complementary therapies in people. People have a preconception of how they’re going to do or not do based on these therapies, and we don’t have that in dogs. Because I had this history of working in this area and I was contacted by a collaborator in China who feels very strongly about the potential efficacy of a compound in these mushrooms. And so we started feeling out what kind of study would look at Eastern medicine in a Western science paradigm, which is where the intersection needs to happen. How we would we do that?

So when you’re contacted to do this, what do they tell you this compound is supposed to do?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: Well, with these mushroom-based compounds people generally talk about boosting immune function. But there was some thought that there were actually anti-tumor and anti-cancer fighting affects associated with this compound and there were some very small reports spattered around the literature. We were really originally looking at quality of life, and immune boosting as a general concept. But once we looked more, we thought let’s see if an anti-cancer effect can be identified in a population of animals with cancer.

How do we think it works?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: We honestly hadn’t planned on publishing the study. We just wanted to try this in 15 dogs, so we could gather some information about it. We planned on using several different dose groups so that we could see if one dose might work better, as well as make sure we didn’t see any major side effects. Ultimately what happened was that these different dose groups had varying effects. So the dogs in the highest dose groups lived longer than any other dogs that had been reported in the literature that have this disease, hemangiosarcoma, and don’t get any sort of chemotherapy. We saw a really nice dose response to this compound associated with how long it took for the tumor to spread, as well as how long the dogs lived. The data was compelling enough to put it out there in the literature, as well as follow-up with a more definitive study, which is what we’re doing now.

The lifespan was huge; it went from three months to a year or more. Is that correct?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: Yes, exactly. We had multiple dogs live well over a year, which in a cohort of 15, is unheard of. We actually had our pathologist go back and review all of the pathology slides from the diagnosis to make sure it was truly hemangiosarcoma. We were about six dogs into the study, and the dogs were living so long compared to what we thought they would, that I was worried that the biopsy reports had been mistaken. But the slides were re-read and all clearly had hemangiosarcoma. So it was unexpected. The size of the effect that we saw in this study was much bigger than we had anticipated.

So quality of life was improved as well, it’s not just the life was lengthened?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: Yes, these dogs generally felt very good. Usually these dogs generally feel pretty good until another tumor develops, breaks open and bleeds. Then the dogs become anemic and weak, and they start not feeling well. So we actually documented for the study how often we would see these episodes where they would be feeling weak, so that we can follow that over time.

How big of a breakthrough do you think this could be and what are the implications for it?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: Well for veterinary medicine alone it will be huge. If, in the current study, dogs getting the mushroom compound are living as long or longer than the dogs that are getting standard care of chemotherapy, owners could potentially give this oral compound to their dogs at home. The owners wouldn’t have to bring their dogs back to the hospital repeatedly, and it doesn’t have the side effects of chemotherapy. The other interesting thing to investigate is combining the mushroom compound with the chemotherapy to see if we can get an even greater anti-cancer effect. So certainly it has the potential to completely change the way we manage this disease in veterinary medicine. A bigger implication would be if this compound would be effective in people that have been diagnosed with cancer as well, by delaying any progression of disease. That would be huge. And of course an additional step would be to see if there is a preventative effect. If you could take this supplement or your dog could take this supplement every day, and it prevented the development of disease that would be transformative as well.

What’s the name of the mushroom?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: It’s called Yun Zhi, that’s the name that they use in China.

Are there any side effects?

Dr. Cimino-Brown: No. Again we just looked at 15 dogs, which is not a lot. But we followed a lot of symptoms, through a questionnaire that asks about vomiting, diarrhea, coughing and a wide variety of other symptoms. We also monitored blood work for any changes over time and we didn’t see any side effects associated with the compound. Now again it’s a small number and so we have to be a little bit careful, but to date it seems fairly safe.