ORU professor / research / mushrooms
Could cancer-eating mushrooms offer a cure to some forms of breast cancer that resist all other forms of treatment?
A researcher and professor at Oral Roberts University is exploring that possibility and is encouraged by what he sees so far.
William Ranahan, head of ORU’s Ranahan Cancer Lab, recently talked about his research at The Assembly, a large church in Broken Arrow.
Ranahan is aware that most people would consider it improbable that a cure for some types of cancer could come out of ORU, which was a dream of the school’s founder, the late Oral Roberts.
Explaining his research, which is ongoing and should not be interpreted as a cure for cancer, Ranahan said that mushrooms are genetically closer to humans than to other plants. They have no mouths and no way to feed themselves, so they design chemicals to break down any material they are growing on and absorb that material as food.
In what he calls a “eureka” moment, Ranahan said, he had the idea of allowing mushrooms to interact with cancer cells, to see if they would design chemicals that could break down the cancer cells.
He looked into published studies and found no one had tried his specific method. Mushrooms have been studied for potential anti-cancer properties for more than a decade, however, and many of those scientists have also developed positive results.
Ranahan needed $50,000 for the initial research, he said, and while he was waiting for a grant to fund the project, someone heard about it and handed him a check for the entire amount.
Working with an engineering student, Ranahan designed an interface that allowed living, growing mushrooms to interact with living cancer cells.
To his amazement, he said, the mushrooms broke down the cancer cells.
“We have mushrooms growing just on cancer. They’ve figured out how to break them down,” he said.
Further testing showed the mushrooms breaking down cancer cells without changing normal, noncancerous cells around them, he said.
“I’m freaking out. This is crazy,” he said. “We’ve taken mushrooms and trained them to destroy, eat, live off of cancer cells. I know that they’re releasing compounds that seem to be selectively destroying cancer cells.
“I don’t know what the compound is. I don’t know if it’s several compounds or one compound. We’re going to have to identify those, and that’s the next step.”
Ranahan said he was an unlikely person to be doing cancer research.
He was raised on a small farm in New Hampshire.
“We lived off of the land; honey bees, vegetable gardens ... mostly splitting wood and shoveling manure.”
When he was 18, he planned to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, looking at a military career, but felt compelled to set aside a week to fast and pray about that decision.
Instead, he went to ORU, graduating in 2005 with a degree in biology. He worked in the biotechnology field in Seattle and eventually went on to do cancer research and get his doctorate at Indiana University School of Medicine.
He was working in cancer research and had an opportunity to go to a top breast cancer lab when he heard about an opening for a professor at ORU.
In a panic, he said, he realized he was supposed to go to Tulsa.
“They were looking for a teacher. I was a researcher,” he said. “My committee busted out laughing. ‘A teaching job? You’re a funny man. ... You’re throwing your doctorate away.’”
But not long after he came to ORU in 2013, he was asked if he would like to do cancer research there, and he set up the Ranahan Cancer Lab.
Professor William Ranahan, shown on the campus of Oral Roberts University. BILL SHERMAN/Tulsa World
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