Heterobasidion annosum – a fungus from the Białowieża Forest that may help cancer treatment

Every year, scientists discover new animal and plant species and their achievements reverberate around the world. In Poland, there exists a unique site of yet unexplored fungi. Perhaps, they are not as beautiful as just distinguished butterflies or orchids, nonetheless, they have the extraordinary biological potential. Fungi present in the Białowieża Forest have exceptional features.


The scientists from the Institute of Forest Sciences, Białystok University of Technology have been working on beneficial uses of fungi for years

In cooperation with specialists from the Medical University of Białystok  (UMB), they discovered that fungus Heterebasidion annosum can support cancer therapy, especially in the case of colorectal cancer. The invention of the scientists entitled: “Extract from polyporus fungus, the preparation containing this extract and its utilisation” was acknowledged in Poland and granted patent.

The scientific team is composed of: Professor Sławomir Bakier (DSc, PhD), Ewa Zapora (PhD), Marek Wołkowycki and  Marcin Stocki (MSc) from the Institute of Forest Sciences, Białystok  University of Technology, as well the researchers from the Medical University of Białystok: Halina Car (DSc, PhD), Anna Sadowska (PhD), Mateusz Maciejczyk (PhD) and Arkadiusz Surażyński (DSc, PhD).

The Białowieża Forest is a huge testing ground for research on the biological potential of fungi. There occur almost 1700 macrofungi species, of which 190 species occur nowhere else.

In my opinion, fungi play the major role in the Białowieża Forest. At the moment, in this environment, there live many endemic species, i.e. those impossible to find in other parts of Europe or even the world. This means that we have a special local resource, which we attempt to use and specialize in.” – says Professor Sławomir Bakier, the Director of the Institute of Forest Sciences at Białystok University of Technology .

In 2017, the researchers from the Institute of Forest Sciences and the Medical University of Białystok filed for a patent on Heterebasidion annosum extract and a pharmaceutical preparation containing the extract.

Fungi used for preparing the extract are the so-called fungi with the medical potential, with pharmacologically proven properties, i.e. they were tested both under laboratory and clinical conditions, and the results obtained confirm that can be used in medicine. An example of such a fungus can be Heterebasidion annosum –  explains Ewa Zapora (PhD), the expert from the Institute of Forest Sciences at Białystok University of Technology.

Heterobasidion annosum is considered by foresters to be one of the most dangerous forest pathogens, as it causes a disease called root rot, but research has shown that this fungus can have encouraging applications in medicine, especially in the treatment of colon cancer. The results of the studies indicate a tremendous potential for the use of this fungus to support anti-cancer therapies and to prevent cancer. Heterobasidion annosum extract may be an active ingredient in an anticancer drug with the advantage of reducing the viability of colon cancer cells and low toxicity to healthy cells.

We realize that Heterobasidion annosum causes a disease that destroys entire tree stands Here and now, we have shown that this fungus can also inhibit the growth of human cancer cells without destroying healthy ones. We have preliminarily analysed its chemical composition, tested it genetically, and have been the first to confirm its potential therapeutic effect” – stresses Ewa Zapora

How did it happen that Heterebasidion annosum came under the microscope of scientists?

Mississippi (USA) who encouraged Professor Sławomir Bakier, the Director of the Institute of Forest Sciences at Białystok University of Technology, to cooperate in studying biological properties of this unusual fungus. We travelled a long road from launching the project to patenting the invention. Our success was possible thanks to cooperation with the friendly university.

We tested Heterobasidion annosum in cooperation with colleagues from the Medical University of Białystok. As a result of screening tests, it turned out that the fungus definitely reduced the growth of colon cancer cells. The laboratory research was followed by studies on animal models, which clearly showed and confirmed that in the future, the extract from the fungus can be the basis for creating a medical product or a drug for colorectal cancer treatment – says Ewa Zapora.

Fungi Extract Bank®

Currently, there are only a few medicines registered in the world, which are derived from fungal compounds with anticancer potential. The procedure associated with patent granting usually takes several years, so it is all the more gratifying for the success of the scientists, before whom no one studied the medicinal properties of the fungus commonly occuring throughout Europe.

We are studying other species of fungi, hoping for further discoveries. I think we can expect a breakthrough in using fungi – stresses Ewa Zapora,, who is counting on broader cooperation in this area. Obtaining the patent opens up more opportunities for potential cooperation with interested companies, as well as facilitates submitting interdisciplinary R&D grants. This will enable both intensification of research on the use of Heterobasidion annosum itself, as well as research on other extracts kept in the Fungi Extract Bank® established by the Institute of Forest Sciences.

The Fungi Extract Bank® at Białystok University of Technology is a database of over 200 extracts of fungi from the Białowieża Forest. They can be used in every field of science, from medicine to food industry, engineering and environmental protection as well as in veterinary medicine. Because of fungi properties, the extracts are the basis for research on finding medicines with antibacterial, antiviral, anticancer, heart-supporting properties or used in treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The wide range of applications of fungi extracts is also shown by an example of a medicinal preparation based on extracts from fruiting bodies of Aurantiporus fissilis – another fungus from the Białowieża Forest. This one can be used to combat American foulbrood, a dangerous bacterial disease that threatens bees. The preparation obtained based on Aurantiporus fissilis extract was also developed at the Institute of Forest Sciences and is currently awaiting patenting.

Will Heterobasidion annosum extract revolutionize medicine in the field of cancer therapy?

Professor Sławomir Bakier does not give a definite answer, but is sure about the benefits.

I don’t know if Heterobasidion annosum extract will revolutionize medicine. It can certainly help many patients. Our research shows that substances present in the extract show strong anti-cancer activity. Prof. Halina Car carried out a study on patients treated with traditional medicines and Heterobasidion annosum extract. The results showed that these worked synergistically and  supported each other, thus created an alternative method not only for disease treatment, but also for prevention.

We are still a long way before us from having patent to developing a drug, and there is a huge potential to exploit the fungi Kingdom.

There are still a lot to discover when it comes to fungi. This is still such an unexplored world who gives a really wide range of possibilities – says Marek Wolkowycki. At the level of fungi extract collection at the Institute of Forestry Sciences, we undertake as broad as possible studies on fungi – not only those from our continent, but also those from all over the world.

As it turns out, the further you explore  the Białowieża Forest, the more possibilities you see. What does this ancient forest offer scientists who turn its “gifts” into inventions that serve humans?

Peeping at organisms makes us smarter. Nature gives us enlightenment. Until recently, it was thought that the basis of nature functioning was competition. The example of fungi and trees shows that this is a symbiosis. Right now we are using the Earth’s resources beyond their capability to renew. We should develop methods of cooperation with Mother Nature so that the Earth is able renew-  we are just the partner among other organisms – concludes Prof. Sławomir Bakier.


Białystok University of Technology


Katarzyna Cichoń, Paweł Jankowski, Michał Obrycki, Gabriela Kościuk – Białystok University of Technology