a photograph of numerous cordyceps mushrooms

From Mushrooms to Medicine: Cordycepin in Cancer, Wound Healing, and Immune Modulation

Dec 21, 2023 | Written by Priyanka Puranik, MSc | Reviewed by Scott Sherr, MD and Marion Hall

Imagine a natural ingredient, hidden in the mystical forests of Asia, that holds the key to unlocking a treasure trove of health benefits.

This is not the plot of an adventure movie, but the story of cordycepin — a remarkable compound derived from the Cordyceps mushroom, particularly the species Cordyceps militaris. Cordycepin, also scientifically known as 3′-deoxyadenosine, is more than just a component of an exotic fungus. It's a powerhouse of potential in the world of medicine.

For centuries, traditional healers across Asia have revered Cordyceps for its healing powers, using it to treat everything from fatigue to serious illnesses. Fast forward to the present day, and cordycepin has captured the attention of modern scientists and health enthusiasts alike. Why, you ask? This unassuming molecule packs a punch against some of today's most challenging health issues, including cancer, inflammation, and immune system disorders.

The essence of cordycepin's therapeutic allure is its unique molecular structure, closely resembling adenosine, a critical player in cellular metabolism and signaling. This resemblance allows cordycepin to interact with numerous biological pathways, making it as a versatile agent in medical research.

But, like any good story, there's a twist! Cordycepin's journey in our bodies is a race against time, as it is rapidly broken down by deamination, leading to a shortened half-life and decreased bioavailability, a hurdle that scientists are actively striving to overcome.

In this article, we're going to dive deep into the world of cordycepin. We'll explore the cutting-edge research that's uncovering how this ancient remedy is proving to be a modern-day marvel in cancer treatment, wound healing, and boosting our immune system.

So, sit back, relax, and let's embark on a journey to discover the secrets of cordycepin — nature's hidden gem with a promise for a healthier future.

Cordycepin in Cancer Treatment

Tumor Suppression and Immune Response

Cordycepin has been identified as a direct tumor-suppression agent, but its effect on the tumor microenvironment (TME) is a relatively new area of exploration. A pivotal study demonstrated cordycepin's influence on macrophage functionality within the TME, revealing its ability to weaken M1-like macrophages and promote polarization toward the M2 phenotype. This discovery has opened avenues for combined therapeutic strategies, such as the synergistic use of cordycepin with an anti-CD47 antibody [1].

The significance of this approach lies in its ability to modulate the immune response within the TME. By employing single-cell RNA sequencing, researchers observed that the combination treatment enhanced the effectiveness of cordycepin, reactivating macrophages and reversing their polarization. Additionally, the treatment regulated the proportions of CD8+ T cells, which are critical for immune response in cancer, thereby prolonging the progression-free survival of patients with digestive tract malignancies. Flow cytometry analyses further confirmed these alterations in tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs) and tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) [1].

Broad-Spectrum Warrior: Antitumor Efficacy in Various Cancers

Cordycepin's antitumor properties extend to a wide array of cancers. It has shown efficacy in breast cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), and bladder cancer. The compound's mechanism of action involves attacking cancer cell DNA, inducing the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and promoting apoptosis. Notably, cordycepin deactivates the PI3K/AKT pathway, a key player in cancer cell survival and proliferation [1].

In addition to the previously mentioned effects, cordycepin induces cell death in various cancer cells and plays a significant role in apoptosis induction, with polyadenylation implications being cell type-specific. It targets various signaling molecules, including kinases crucial in cancer progression. The general anti-cancer mechanisms of cordycepin are mediated through interactions with the adenosine A3 receptor, EGFR, mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), and GSK-3β [2-6].

In breast cancer, cordycepin has been reported to suppress epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), invasion, and metastasis. This suppression is achieved by inhibiting the Hedgehog signaling pathway and the generation of ROS, which are crucial processes in cancer metastasis. Moreover, cordycepin has shown potential in enhancing the sensitivity of cancer cells to traditional chemotherapeutic agents like cisplatin and temozolomide, offering new possibilities for combination therapies [7,8].

Boosting Immunotherapy: The Cordycepin-CD47 Connection

The potential of cordycepin in cancer immunotherapy is an emerging field of interest. CD47, a cell surface molecule expressed in most cancers, plays a crucial role in evading immune response. High CD47 expression is often associated with poor prognoses in various cancers, including NSCLC and gastric cancer. By interacting with the CD47-SIRPα pathway, cordycepin influences the immune response, particularly the functionality of macrophages.

Studies have shown that blocking the CD47-SIRPα interaction enhances the phagocytic function of M1 macrophages, promoting a shift from the pro-tumor M2 phenotype to the anti-tumor M1 phenotype. This shift is pivotal in boosting the immune system's capacity to combat cancer cells. Clinical trials have begun to explore the efficacy of treatments targeting this pathway, with some showing promising results in terms of increased tumor suppression and improved patient outcomes [1].

Trailblazing Trials

NUC-7738: Cordycepin's Clinical Leap

Recent advancements have led to the development of a chemotherapy drug, NUC-7738, derived from cordycepin. This drug, developed by the biopharmaceutical company NuCana in collaboration with the University of Oxford, has demonstrated up to 40 times greater potency in killing cancer cells compared to its parent compound. The ProTide technology used in its development has been instrumental in enhancing the efficacy of NUC-7738 by bypassing resistance mechanisms and generating high levels of the active anti-cancer metabolite, 3’-dATP, inside cancer cells. This technology, previously used in antiviral drugs like Remsidivir and Sofusbuvir, has shown promise in delivering chemotherapy drugs effectively into cancer cells [9].

The Phase 1 clinical trial, NuTide:701, assessed NUC-7738 in patients with advanced solid tumors that were resistant to conventional treatment. Early results from the trial indicated that the drug is well-tolerated by patients and exhibited encouraging signs of anti-cancer activity.

The latest update on NuTide:701 involving NUC-7738 was presented at the AACR-NCI-EORTC International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics in October 2023. The trial has progressed to Phase 2, investigating NUC-7738 both as a monotherapy in solid tumors and in combination with pembrolizumab in patients with metastatic cutaneous melanoma. All patients in the trial had exhausted the standard available therapies.

The results show that NUC-7738 is well tolerated in both monotherapy and in combination with pembrolizumab. Encouraging signs of efficacy were observed, including tumor volume reductions and prolonged time on treatment. In the combination cohort of melanoma patients who had previously received anti-PD-1-based therapy, several patients achieved tumor volume reductions and prolonged time on treatment. Notably, one patient who was refractory to the anti-PD-1 plus anti-CTLA-4 therapy combination achieved a 50% reduction in tumor volume on NUC-7738 plus pembrolizumab and remains on treatment.

Additionally, patient tumor biopsy data indicated that treatment with NUC-7738 plus pembrolizumab reduced PD-1 expression and increased CD8+ T-cells, suggesting that NUC-7738 may enhance the effectiveness of immunotherapy. This finding provides a rationale for why NUC-7738 in combination with pembrolizumab may be effective in patients who have progressed on prior immunotherapy.

Beyond the Petri Dish: Cordycepin's In Vivo Efficacy

Cordycepin has been reported to have various physiological and pharmacological activities, including immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anticancer effects [5]. Animal studies have shown that purified cordycepin can reduce tumor growth, and its incorporation into nanoparticles like poly-lactic-co-glycolic acid has significantly increased its half-life and clinical efficacy [4]. Cordycepin's potential as an anti-neoplastic agent is further evidenced in studies investigating its effect on inhibiting colon cancer proliferation and enhancing the chemosensitivity of esophageal cancer cells [10,11].

Moreover, cordycepin has shown direct and safe antitumor efficacy in various cancers, including breast cancer and cholangiocarcinoma, and has been demonstrated to exert anticancer and antimetastatic activities in cell lines of many tumor types in vitro and in vivo tumor models in mice [1,12].

In conclusion, cordycepin represents a promising natural compound in the fight against cancer. Its development into more effective and stable formulations like NUC-7738 and the ongoing clinical trials are crucial steps in understanding its full therapeutic potential and applicability in cancer treatment. As research continues, cordycepin might hold the key to more effective and targeted cancer therapies.

Cordycepin in Wound Healing

Cordycepin's role in wound healing, though less explored than its anti-cancer properties, presents a promising area of therapeutic research. The challenges in studying cordycepin's effectiveness in wound healing mainly revolve around its rapid metabolism and reduced bioavailability in vivo. This necessitates innovative approaches to enhance its stability and efficacy.

Overcoming Obstacles: Enhancing Cordycepin's Bioavailability

A critical aspect of cordycepin's therapeutic potential in wound healing is improving its bioavailability. Due to its rapid deamination by adenosine deaminase (ADA) in the body, cordycepin's half-life is significantly shortened, limiting its clinical utility. Recent research has focused on methods to slow down this deamination process. Three primary strategies have emerged: co-administering an ADA inhibitor with cordycepin, developing more effective derivatives through structural modification, and employing new drug delivery systems [13].

These approaches aim to maintain cordycepin's stability in the body for longer durations, thereby enhancing its therapeutic effects. For example, nanoconjugates and liposomal formulations have been explored as means to protect cordycepin from rapid degradation and facilitate targeted delivery to wound sites.

Cellular Symphony: The Healing Mechanisms of Cordycepin

Although specific studies detailing cordycepin's mechanisms in wound healing are limited, its known pharmacological properties suggest several pathways through which it may exert beneficial effects. Cordycepin's anti-inflammatory properties could play a vital role in the initial phases of wound healing, reducing inflammation and promoting a conducive environment for tissue repair.

The molecular mechanisms behind cordycepin's role in wound healing involve enhancing mitochondrial energy metabolism and cell proliferation markers like CREB1 and Ki67 in dermal fibroblasts. Additionally, its role in inhibiting inflammation, though not fully elucidated, suggests a potential impact on growth factor signaling during the healing process [14,15].

In addition, the role of cordycepin in influencing keratinocyte secretome, which impacts dermal fibroblast behavior during wound healing, is documented [16]. Moreover, the development of cordycepin-melittin nanoconjugate for wound healing in diabetic rats underscores the ongoing research in this area [17].

Furthermore, cordycepin’s influence on cellular metabolism and signaling could aid in the proliferation and migration of fibroblasts, key cells involved in wound closure, and tissue regeneration. The potential for cordycepin to enhance collagen synthesis and angiogenesis, critical processes in wound healing, is also an area worth exploring in future research.

Cordycepin in Immune System Modulation

The role of cordycepin in modulating the immune system is a facet of its pharmacological profile that has garnered significant interest in recent years. This interest is driven by cordycepin's ability to influence various components of the immune response, from cytokine production to cell-mediated immunity.

Cordycepin's impact on the immune system is multifaceted. It promotes immune cells' antitumor functions by upregulating immune responses and downregulating immunosuppression in the TME. Cordycepin is associated with cytokine production and stimulates phagocytosis in immune cells. It also acts by downregulating the adenosine A2 receptor and inhibiting microglial activation, impacting several neuroinflammatory markers. These immunoregulatory effects include modulation of interleukin (IL)-10 and IL-2 expression and T lymphocyte activity [18-21].

Boosting the Body's Defenses with Cordycepin

The Cordyceps species, including cordycepin, have been linked to the production of various cytokines such as IL-1β, IL-2, IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, IL-12, and tumor necrosis factor-α [20,21]. These cytokines play crucial roles in orchestrating the body's response to pathogens and malignancies. Cordycepin enhances phagocytosis in macrophages and mononuclear cells and stimulates nitric oxide production by enhancing inducible nitric oxide synthase activity, which is vital for an effective immune response. Furthermore, it influences the inflammatory response via the MAPK pathway [21].

These actions underscore cordycepin's potential as an immunostimulatory agent, capable of boosting the immune system's capacity to respond to various challenges, including infections and cancer.

Balancing Immune Responses

Apart from stimulating the immune system, cordycepin also plays a role in modulating and balancing immune responses. This is particularly important in conditions where an overactive immune response can be detrimental, such as in autoimmune diseases or chronic inflammation. Studies in cancer have shown that Cordyceps spp., including cordycepin, increases the production of crucial cytokines and induces phagocytosis, highlighting its role in both enhancing and regulating immune responses [21].

Cordycepin's dual role as an immunostimulant and modulator makes it an attractive candidate for developing new therapeutic approaches where regulation of the immune response is crucial. Its ability to act on different aspects of the immune system opens up possibilities for use in a wide range of diseases, from infectious diseases to immune-mediated disorders.

Uncharted Territories: Future Directions in Cordycepin Research

The current body of research provides a foundational understanding of cordycepin's impact on the immune system, but there is much that remains to be explored. Future studies are needed to further elucidate the specific mechanisms of action, optimal dosing regimens, and potential therapeutic applications in various immune-related conditions.


Cordycepin, derived from the Cordyceps genus of fungi, has emerged as a compound of significant interest due to its wide range of pharmacological effects, including antitumor, wound healing, and immunomodulatory properties. The research to date has provided valuable insights into the mechanisms by which cordycepin exerts its effects, offering promising therapeutic possibilities.

In cancer treatment, cordycepin has shown potential in tumor suppression, enhancing the efficacy of traditional therapies, and modulating the immune response in the TME. In the context of wound healing, while direct studies are limited, its known anti-inflammatory and cell-regulatory properties suggest a beneficial role, with the primary challenge being the enhancement of its bioavailability and stability in vivo.

The modulation of the immune system by cordycepin presents a fascinating area of research, with implications for a wide range of conditions. Its ability to stimulate and regulate immune responses makes cordycepin a potential agent in managing immune-related disorders and augmenting the body's response to pathogens and malignancies.

Future research should focus on addressing the current gaps in knowledge, particularly in clinical settings, to fully harness the therapeutic potential of cordycepin. As our understanding of this compound grows, so does the potential for new, innovative treatments across a spectrum of diseases.

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Priyanka Puranik, a passionate biotechnology scholar, earned her first master's degree from the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology (IBB), Savitribai Phule Pune University, India, in 2019. During her rigorous five-year Integrated Master of Science (MSc) program, Priyanka immersed herself in intricate research projects, spanning Molecular and Cell Biology, Nanotechnology, and Cancer Biology. Her master's thesis involved synthesizing 3D multicellular tumor spheroids from mammalian cancer cell lines, unraveling in-vitro growth complexities.

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