The shiitake mushroom, native to Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea, has been consumed for more than 1000 years in Asian culture and is gaining popularity in the west.
It is already marketed as a natural health food in the US, as it has been shown to help boost the immune system. But now a Danish start-up called MediMush is using proprietary technology to produce extracts of the active components of the mushroom for use as a functional food ingredient or supplement.
At the end of May it announced that Skane had agreed to develop new products containing its lentinan extract, the polysaccharide believed to boost the immune system.
"To my knowledge all other shiitake products [available in the nutraceuticals industry] are based on the whole mushroom," said Hans-Petter Danielsen, managing director of MediMush.
He told NutraIngredients.com that the firm had carried out in vitro and in vivo tests in the US and Norway and that it would continue with clinical trials.
There have already been a number of studies published on lentinan's effects on the immune system and the beta-glucan has been marketed for injection in Japan and China for more than 20 years.
It could also be a good nutraceutical once it gets clearance as a novel food.
"We are still at the early stages in developing our ingredient but based on the literature, we believe this product will have a certain beneficial effect, and so far our research shows that this is the case," said Danielsen.
The Copenhagen firm is also about to wrap up the research needed to support a novel foods dossier for the ingredient.
MediMush says that medicinal mushrooms are a major source of nutraceuticals that are largely untapped by Western countries. It has already signed an agreement this year with Sweden's Bringwell for use of the lentinan extract in supplements.
Skane is planning to launch its first shiitake-based food "within one to two years", according to managing director Rolf Bjerndell.
The agreement is valid for Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway.
The MediMush technology cultivates medicinal mushrooms in submerged culture, allowing it to manufacture ingredients with purity above 99 per cent. In the standard lentinan extraction process, as much as 1000 kg of fresh shiitake mushrooms may be needed to extract 155 g lentinan. By comparison, the Danish firm can manufacture 240 grams of pure lentinan in one batch from its 1500 litre fermentor.
MediMush claims to have a pipeline of 30 candidates for new agents, and is aiming to become a leading supplier of medicinal mushroom ingredients to both the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries.
Japan already markets a number of anti-cancer drugs derived from mushrooms.In 2002, a report from the UK charity Cancer Research UK suggested that compounds derived from mushrooms could have a "hugely beneficial influence" on the way cancer is treated.