It was by accident that a laboratory worker discovered the healing properties of a tiny fungus, Pythium oligandrum, for humans. In the 1970s the team of scientist Dasa Vesely found out that the microscopic organism feeds on other fungi and started applying it in agriculture to protect plants from parasitic mushrooms. In the early 1990s a lab assistant accidentally dropped a bit of the powder in her boot. She was suffering from athlete's foot, and all of a sudden her symptoms started receding. When she realised what it was that helped her, she tried the fungus out on her husband's feet and when it worked, too, she confided her discovery to her bosses.
"Around 1993 Pythium oligandrum was first tested on humans - to find out whether it can cure diseases caused by fungi on the skin, hair, toe nails and finger nails. It was proved that it feeds on those fungi as well. No side effects or toxicity were discovered in the process and the mushroom was declared innocuous for humans. Eventually, a Czech company started manufacturing a foot soak treating athlete's foot. It helps people to get rid of the sweating, itching and the odour caused by the fungus."
Doctor Karel Mencl from the Microbiology Laboratory in Pardubice took part in the tests. He calls Pythium oligandrum a "vampire" fungus because when it encounters another fungus, it grows tiny fibres, penetrates the cells of its relative and sucks out nutrients from them. Doctor Mencl says one of the advantages of Pythium oligandrum over usual chemical products is that the harmful fungi don't develop resistance to it. If they try and fight the "cannibal" fungus, it always prevails and eats them up because, as Doctor Mencl says, it has a great appetite.
"When it eats all the parasitic fungi, it stops multiplying and leaves the territory to allow the healing process to take place and the skin get back to normal. It dries out and you can just dust it out of the shoes. It goes away without causing any harm anywhere."
During the trials, researchers discovered that in some cases patients with psoriasis, varicose ulcers or eczema experienced a relief of their symptoms.
"Pythium oligandrum, or the 'clever mushroom' as we call it, is applied on the skin in the form of spores. When the spores 'wake up', they produce a large amount of enzymes and other substances that help them develop. We think that these enzymes might be the reason why the fungus can treat some forms of other skin diseases, such as psoriasis, eczema and ulcers, which have nothing to do with fungi."
Doctor Karel Mencl says that Pythium oligandrum can by no means substitute regular anti-fungus medicines. But this natural and environmentally friendly remedy can be applied as supportive treatment in mild cases or in patients who for various reasons cannot tolerate chemical substances.
At the moment the substance is sold as an over-the-counter drug in the form of a powder and cream. Further tests are being carried out so that Pythium oligandrum could be officially approved as a prescription drug in the Czech Republic.