A boon for patients with a fear of needles, Park’s Fungus Inhale Vaccination concept involves impregnating mushrooms with an attenuated virus, a weakened pathogen that the body can develop immunity against. The virus becomes part of the organism’s spores—those microscopic particles that fungi use to reproduce—which a person then inhales.
Breathable immunizations already exist. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported that a nasal spray flu vaccine might work better in younger children than a standard shot. Recently, researchers at the National Institute for Health and University of Texas found success in an aerosol vaccine against Ebola in primates.
But fungi offers something traditional inhalables do not, Park says in an email interview: “Vaccines are easier to transport and spread out in our body through inhalation when the attenuated vaccine is absorbed by fungus. Moreover, inhaled vaccines can help achieve herd immunity.”
Park worked with Dr. Kanghoon Lee, a Korean scientist who is currently in a PhD program at KAIST (the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), to verify and refine her ideas.
Park notes that this concept isn’t for people with weakened immune systems. “The potential functions of fungi are not yet fully understood in the medical community,” she writes on her website. But for healthy patients, she sees a world of possibilities and has embarked on a crusade to dispel negative associations attached to the organisms. As such, she proposes candy-like chewables for kids and prismatic mushroom caps that would entice people to grow their own fungi at home.
What seems to hold the most promise is the how fungus could impact vaccine production. Imagine vaccine farms or patients being able to grow their own vaccines as easily as they grow mushrooms. “Fungus can survive and proliferate even in harsh environments,” Park says. “Therefore, we can extract large amounts of vaccine proteins as much as the fungus proliferates.”
Yes, the project is totally far-fetched. But it does get you thinking about how biology might hold better ways for doing things. (We’ll still take our mushrooms as a topping for now.)