Radioactive element astatine, which is beneficial in cancer treatment, has been found in mushrooms cultivated in Kutch, Gujarat.

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Scientists in Gujarat have found astatine, a rare naturally occurring radioactive element that can help treat cancer, in mushrooms grown in small farms in Kutch. Normally, cobalt radiation therapy for cancer treatment has side-effects such as nausea and hair loss. The element astatine could help to minimise these adverse effects and be a more effective mode of treatment.

The study was conducted by the Bhuj-based Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE) and Kutch University, where the scientists extracted astatine from pink oyster mushrooms.

Astatine was found while  checking the pink oyster mushrooms for their protein content and other components. The presence of astatine was 12% in the mushroom extract.Later analysis did not show traces of the element since it decays and was probably absorbed by the mushrooms.Oncologists say it is interesting that astatine has been found in mushrooms in India.

Astatine is the rarest naturally occurring element present in the earth’s crust. A sample of the pure element has been difficult to isolate owing to its immediate vaporisation from its own radioactivity. The research in nuclear medicine for cancer cure has sprung from its [astatine’s] ability to emit alpha radiation, thus it has been of great interest and potential.

Astatine constantly breaks down or decays and releases alpha particles. The peculiarity or speciality of these alpha particles is that their energy is limited to a very small field, within millimetres. That makes them highly targetable. It gives a higher probability of sparing the normal cells from the effect of the radiation, as anything that kills cancer cells can kill normal cells too.

It must also be used quickly as it decays with a very short half-life of 7.2 hours.Half-life is the time taken for the activity of the radioactive substance to lose half of its radiation effect.

Chemotherapy normally has many side-effects like nausea and hair loss. Doctors usually give a gap before the next session to check the side-effects of the therapy. With astatine, as it has shorter half-life and restricted penetration, the side-effects can be reduced.

More research and data needed

Experts say the research on astatine is at an initial stage and more data is needed to suggest that it gives significant benefits.

There are lack of trials too since the element is not so readily available. It is a rare naturally occurring element. At any point of time worldwide, the available astatine amount is somewhere around one ounce or less than one ounce. But, of course, we can remain hopeful.

Mushrooms have many health benefits even otherwise, being rich in antioxidants and protein. All forms of mushrooms are rich in minerals like selenium, which has anti-cancer benefits. Mushrooms help improve immunity too. The radioactive element astatine may be present in other mushroom varieties as well, but that needs to be studied.

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