A team of scientists may have just found an antidote to one of the most infamous natural poisons in the world: the death cap mushroom. In a new study, they detail experiments showing that a common medical dye can counteract the fungi’s deadly effects in mice. Given its already approved uses, the team believes that the dye could save plenty of human lives in the near future.
Delicious and useful as many mushrooms are, some species can be very dangerous. In China, where wild mushroom eating is common, mushrooms might be the most common cause of reported food poisoning outbreaks, accounting for over 30,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths over a 10-year span, according to one recent study. And even in the U.S., there are thousands of poison control calls related to toxic mushrooms every year.
The death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) in particular is a prolific source of fungi-caused misery. By some estimates, it’s thought to cause more than 90% of mushroom-related deaths. To make matters worse, death caps can be easily mistaken for other, actually edible mushrooms.
Given this ongoing danger, scientists in China wanted to find a potential antidote to the death cap. They focused on alpha-amanitin, the mushroom’s primary toxin. Despite its well-known reputation, scientists still don’t fully understand why alpha-amanitin is so deadly to humans. So the team relied on a variety of methods, including a relatively new technology that uses the gene-editing technique CRISPR, to screen for chemicals that seemed to help make alpha-amanitin as toxic as it is.
Their expansive search led them to one potential key protein called STT3B. Then they looked for existing drugs that might interfere with the interaction between STT3B and alpha-amanitin, finding indocyanine green (ICG). Finally, to test their hypothesis, they gave ICG to liver cells in the lab and to male mice exposed to alpha-amanitin. As hoped for, ICG substantially inhibited the mushroom’s toxicity. Less than 25% of mice exposed to alpha-amanitin alone survived by the 30-day mark, for instance, compared to 50% of those also given ICG.
The team’s findings were published Tuesday in Nature Communications.
“This molecule holds immense potential for treating cases of human mushroom poisoning and could mark the first-ever specific antidote with a targeted protein,” senior study author Qiaoping Wang, a researcher at China’s Sun Yat-sen University, told the AFP.
The findings will have to be validated with more studies. But since ICG is already widely used in humans as a fluorescent medical dye, that should make it easier to safely test it out as a potential death cap cure. And the researchers are already planning to conduct human trials soon.
“It could save many lives if it is as effective in humans as in mice,” Wang said.