Tiger milk mushroom: Malaysia's lost national treasure

Many people doubted him. No one supported him. Yet, even though the outlook was bleak, a researcher in Malaysia entered the unchartered waters of nutraceutical research to seek out a rare fungus that had once been touted as a national treasure.

It all started in 2002 when Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamed, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, announced during his keynote address at the International Biotechnology Convention in Kuala Lumpur that he had finally found a cure for the chronic cough that had plagued him for many years: the Tiger Milk Mushroom.

Mostly falling on deaf ears, these words did have an effect on one person in the audience. Dr Tan Chon Seng, a researcher with MARDI (Malaysia Agricultural Research & Development Institute), vividly recalled that during his youth, his mother would grind a dried mushroom (passed down from his grandfather) into powder and mix it with water for him and his siblings to drink whenever they had a cough, cold or fever. And it worked wonders!

The Tiger Milk Mushroom is native to tropical forests in South East Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Southern China and parts of Australia.

The Tiger Milk Mushroom is native to tropical forests in South East Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Southern China and parts of Australia. As the name suggests and according to aboriginal folklore, this relatively unknown fungus is said to grow on the spot where tiger milk falls to the ground when a mother is feeding her cubs. It has been used in traditional medicine as a health tonic by Aborigines and indigenous populations to treat more than 15 medical ailments, including cough, asthma, bronchitis, joint pain, fever, breast cancer, stomach cancer, food poisoning, healing wounds, indigestion and gastritis. Furthermore, almost every Chinese family in the 1950s and 60s kept Tiger Milk Mushroom in their homes as a handy medicine for cough, cold and asthma. The Malays also used it to treat various ailments including breast, liver and lung cancer.

Tiger Milk Mushroom, a so-called underground fungus, was first brought to light in 1664 when a government agent from Europe was given this mythical product when he sailed to the South East Asian region. Published on 22 June 1664, The Diary of John Evelyn records the name of this product as Lac tygridis, meaning tiger’s milk, and reports that this fungus was used by local people to treat diseases that European doctors could find no cure for.

Subsequently, Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, the father of Malaya’s rubber industry, went on record in 1890 to say that Tiger Milk Mushroom was an important medicinal mushroom used by the local communities. He even attempted to cultivate it but failed. In the same year, Cooke was the first person to document this fungus scientifically and, based on a specimen found in Penang, named it Fomes rhinocerotis. Today, its scientific name is more commonly known as Lignosus rhinocerotis/L. rhinocerus.

Little Known Facts About Tiger Milk Mushroom

Unlike most, if not all other mushroom species, which mainly grow in groups or dense clusters, Lignosus rhinocerus grows in isolation: you’ll only find one stalk at a time. And that’s not all, what makes it precious and rare is that you won’t or can’t find another stalk within a radius of 5km. And, even if you do happen to find one, chances are that it may have grown to a stage by which it has sprouted out from the ground and produced a stem and cap. Unfortunately, the medicinal properties of L. rhinocerus are only found in the underground tuber or sclerotium. So, by the time the fruiting body has appeared, most of the active compound in the sclerotium will have been depleted.

As a result of its unique growth habit, coupled with deforestation, finding Tiger Milk Mushroom is very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. Plus, with the rampant use of antibiotics and other medications brought about by advances in medical science during the last 50 years, this mythical fungus has slowly faded from people’s memory. Dr Tan Chon Seng realised that if nothing was done to address this issue, Tiger Milk Mushroom would soon become a topic for history books or an artefact in a museum. He wanted to inject new life into this rare medicinal mushroom.

The Four Challenges of Cultivating Tiger Milk Mushroom

Understanding the lifecycle of Tiger Milk Mushroom, Dr Tan was fully aware of the daunting task awaiting him to overcome four major challenges of cultivating this rare mushroom:

  • ensuring a stable and sustainable supply
  • ensuring consistent quality and an uncompromised genetic profile
  • ensuring consistent efficacy
  • ensuring its long-term consumption safety.

As expected, many of his experiments failed. But, he pressed on and, after 6 years of hard work, his perseverance finally paid off. He and his team finally tasted success when they made a major breakthrough in 2008: the first cultivated Tiger Milk Mushroom in the world was finally produced. In the same year, LiGNO Biotech Sdn Bhd was formed to begin the commercial cultivation and production of Tiger Milk Mushroom on a mass scale using a proprietary solid fermentation technology in a temperature controlled and sterile environment.

Backed by Science

With a team of trained scientists led by Dr Tan, the company didn’t just stop at the cultivation stage; they wanted the supporting science to speak for itself. Numerous studies have been done so far to verify the efficacy and safety profile of their cultivated Tiger Milk Mushroom (LiGNO TM02 Freeze dried powder). Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Asthma, chronic cough, COPD and bronchitis, etc., are conditions in which the lungs’ airways become inflamed and constricted. LiGNO TM02 contains bioactive agents that have anti-inflammatory effects that can help to unblock the airways by reducing or even removing the inflammation.1

Immunomodulating Effects: LiGNO TM02 is able to stimulate our immune system’s second line of defence to a desired level to fight foreign agents or substances. As a result, our body benefits from stronger immunity to defend itself against respiratory disorders caused by bacteria and viruses.2

Antiproliferative Effects: LiGNO TM02 can inhibit the growth of certain breast and lung cancer cells (without affecting other healthy cells). There is great potential for the product to be used to improve breast and lung cancer treatment, although more studies need to be done to substantiate this particular function.3

Antioxidant Effects: LiGNO TM02 is able to counter some free radicals, thereby preventing oxidative stress, which may be detrimental to the airways and lung function.4

Safety Issues

According to OECD guidelines, various stringent toxicity studies have been done and they have not established any adverse change in body weight, liver, kidney, heart, spleen and lung function, and fertility.5 In addition, screening by The Toxicology Laboratory of the National Poison Center, Malaysia, has also concluded that no corticosteroid was found in the product.

Reaching Out to the World

The company feels that the time has arrived for them to bring their LiGNO TM02 to the world market. They believe the potential market is huge, especially in the northern hemisphere where influenza is epidemic during the cold season. Coupled with ever-rising levels of air pollutants brought about by rapid industrialization and urbanization, it is inevitable that more and more people will fall victim to respiratory disorders.

According to a recent paper in the British Journal of Pharmacology, for example, cough is an unmet clinical need. So far, research efforts to improve diagnostic capabilities and develop more effective therapeutic agents with fewer unwanted adverse side-effects have been disappointing.6 Further, in a report published in 2007, the global asthma market was projected to reach $17 billion by 2010.7 Based on the National Health Interview Survey, 2012, there were 18.7 million asthmatic adults and 6.8 million asthmatic children in the US alone.8 And, according to WHO, 100–150 million people around the globe currently suffer from asthma — and the number is rising.

Although the market potential seems to be huge, competition is equally strong. It’s futile to simply introduce another me-too or run-of-the-mill product; you need one that’s unique and stands out in a crowded market. That’s where LiGNO TM02 can play a strategic part in your next product development plan. Used as a base ingredient, you can develop your own unique formulations to cater for the needs of this expanding market.

References

1. S.S. Lee, et al., “Anti-Inflammatory Effect of the Sclerotium of Lignosus rhinocerotis (Cooke) Ryvarden, the Tiger Milk Mushroom,” BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 14, 359 (2014).

2. K.H. Wong, et al., “Stimulation of Human Innate Immune Cells by Mushroom Sclerotial Polysaccharides,” International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms 11, 215–223 (2009); K.H. Wong, et al., “Immuno-Modulatory Activities of Mushroom Sclerotial Polysaccharides,” Food Hydrocolloids 25, 150–158 (2010); C. Guo, et al., “Hot Water Extract of the Sclerotium of Polyporus rhinocerus Cooke Enhances the Immune Functions of Murine Macrophages,” International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms 13(3), 237–244 (2011).

3. M.L. Lee, et al., “The Antiproliferative Activity of Sclerotia of Lignosus rhinocerus (Tiger Milk Mushroom),” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2012/697603 (2012).

4. Y.H. Yap, et al., “Nutrient Composition, Antioxidant Properties and Anti-Proliferative Activity of Lignosus rhinocerus Cooke Sclerotium,” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 93(12), 2945–2952 (2013).

5. S.S. Lee, et al., “Evaluation of the Sub-Acute Toxicity of the Sclerotium of Lignosus rhinocerus (Cooke), The Tiger Milk Mushroom,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 138, 192–200 (2011): S.S. Lee, et al., “Preclinical Toxicological Evaluations of the Sclerotium of Lignosus rhinocerus (Cooke), The Tiger Milk Mushroom,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 147, 157–163 (2013).

6. P.V. Dicpinigaitis, “Cough: An Unmet Clinical Need,” Br. J. Pharmacology 163(1), 116–124 (2011).

7. D. Mathon, “Asthma and COPD — Clearing the Air,” ING Analyst Report (18 June 2007).

8. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services, Vital and Health Statistics Series 10(258) December 2013; Series 10(260) February 2014.

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