Keller explained that fungi have complex cells like humans do and share many of the same proteins. As a result, they can interact with our bodies and change substances, such as enzymes.
For example, the fungi-sourced lovastatin targets an enzyme — HGM-CoA reductase — found in both humans and fungi. This enzyme is needed to produce cholesterol in humans as well as the fungi version of cholesterol, called ergosterol. When lovastatin interacts with the enzyme in a person, it can lower that individual’s LDL cholesterol (popularly known as the “bad” cholesterol). The drug also has antifungal properties.
“It’s likely that many fungi-sourced compounds with medical potential will be antimicrobial, but based on past history, we can also expect drugs to target the human immune response and high cholesterol, among others,” Clevenger said.
Other tech advances in recent years have led to the realization that good health often has more to do with a well-balanced microbiome than the presence — or absence — of any particular supposed beneficial or detrimental agent.
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For example, the bacterium Propionibacterium acnes — long associated with acne, as its name suggests — is actually the most prevalent and abundant bacterial species in the facial hair follicles of people with clear, healthy skin. Scientists are therefore rethinking conventional medical treatments as they proceed with new drug discovery.
“By finding a new generation of highly specific antibiotics, we can fight infection without carpet bombing our guts with broad spectrum drugs that wipe out large swaths of our microbiome,” Kelleher said. “We’ll need lots of different types of compounds, which we expect fungi will have since they’ve been fighting bacteria since long before humans walked the earth.”
The research team includes Chengcang Charles Wu and other scientists from the biotech company Intact Genomics, which has ambitious goals. As Wu put it, the company hopes “to help feed the world and to cure all human diseases through partnerships with individuals [and] private and public institutions.”
In terms of drug discovery, he and his colleagues believe that the newly developed three-step investigation process can be used to process close to 1000 fungi that potentially hold a wealth of beneficial molecules.
“Extrapolating from our study,” Kelleher said, “we could pull out something like 10,000 to 20,000 new types of drug-like chemicals in the next few years.”
WATCH: The Medical Promise of Fungus