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Can caterpillar fungus prevent cancer? Science says no – China’s latest society and culture news


“Little by little, the myth around these ‘magical’ plants in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) will be dismantled.”

“TCM never claims that caterpillar fungus has anti-cancer properties. It is a marketing strategy by those who want to cash in on this plant. You can’t say the whole concept of TCM is a scam only because caterpillar fungus doesn’t live up to its hype.”

From Weibo (in Chinese)

For years, caterpillar fungus (冬虫夏草 dōngchóngxiàcǎo), also known as Himalayan Viagra, has commanded high prices because of a belief that consuming it has many health benefits. However, a recent paper published by the international journal Cell Chemical Biology concludes that caterpillar fungus does not have any anti-carcinogenic properties. This is a result that contradicts the belief of many of the consumers of the fungus, and how it is promoted in commercials.

After eight years of research, a group of Chinese scientists at the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology in Shanghai found two anti-cancer compounds, cordycepin and pentostatin, in Cordyceps militaris, a different fungus. Ironically, the research also proved that “neither of the compounds is produced in caterpillar fungus,” Wang Chengshu 王成树, head of the research team, said.

The team’s findings were published on Cell Chemical Biology’s website on October 19, but five days later, Xinhua released an article whose headline reads, “Study reveals anti-cancer properties of caterpillar fungus.” The conclusion, as the article indicates, also comes from the same group of scientists. It remains unclear if Xinhua misunderstood the paper on purpose or not, but Xinhua is certainly not the only organization that has contradicted the scientific findings. Last week, some reporters at the Beijing News visited (in Chinese) a few pharmacies in Beijing. Pretending to be potential buyers, they were constantly told that caterpillar fungus can prevent or cure cancer. “Many people covet these benefits from caterpillar fungus. That’s why it’s so pricey,” said one pharmacist.

Caterpillar fungus has been a lucrative business in China for many years. According to Time Weekly, the prices of it have increased tenfold since 2003. In the retail market, quality caterpillar fungus can be sold at a price of 888 yuan ($134) per gram, roughly three times that of gold. By contrast, Cordyceps militaris — which does actually have anti-cancer properties — usually costs around 0.3 yuan ($0.05) a gram.

Many Tibetan nomads have joined the frenzied annual harvest of caterpillar fungus, which, some environmentalists have warned, will have a long-term impact on the environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

Note: The Chinese name of caterpillar fungus (冬虫夏草 dōngchóngxiàcǎo) means “winter worm, summer grass” because the fungus is said to look like a worm in the winter and grass in the summer.

—Jiayun Feng


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Jiayun Feng

Jiayun was born in Shanghai, where she spent her first 20 years and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Fudan University. Interested in writing for a global audience, she attended the NYU Graduate School of Journalism for its Global & Joint Program Studies, which allowed her to pursue a journalism career along with her interest in international relations. She has previously interned for Sixth Tone and Shanghai Daily.