Fire Pistons and Chaga Mushrooms

Jacob Schor ND FABNO

September 13, 2008


When I find myself overwhelmed, I often allow my mind to latch onto some odd and obscure tidbit to occupy it and block out the major worries that plague me.  My dear wife Rena Bloom still finds my decision while we were in school to rebuild my Subaru’s carburetor during final’s week to be incomprehensible. 

It made perfect sense to me.

Of late I’ve been marveling at a small hand held gadget once carried by the headhunters of Borneo and now favored by modern survivalists.  It is called a fire piston.   This deceptively simple gadget is just a small hand driven piston, that quickly generates a burning coal with which one can ignite a fire.

Dredge up your old memory files from high school chemistry class and look under the heading for Boyle’s law. 

Named after the Irish philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Boyle’s law states that at constant temperature, the absolute pressure and the volume of gas are inversely proportional. Perhaps the mathematical equation for Boyle's law, PV = k, will help you locate those memories

In the real world when you change pressure on a gas, temperature does change.  If you rapidly release pressure on a volume of gas, for example discharge the pressurized gas out of a fire extinguisher, or deflate a car tire, the temperature of the gas drops.  If you add air to a tire, or fill a scuba tank, increasing the pressure, you generate heat.  In a diesel engine, it is the rapid increase in gas pressure on the piston’s down stroke that ignites the fuel and air mixture.  There are no spark plugs in diesel engines.

Fire pistons take advantage of this increase in temperature with increased pressure.  They are small handheld pistons that trap and compress the air within.  A small chunk of highly flammable kindling material attached to the head of the piston ignites during a single downstroke.  I find myself unduly entertained watching videos on the net demonstrating fire pistons in action:

Think about this.  Here’s a small hand held fire starter, an instant lighter, that doesn’t wear out, works almost anywhere and costs nothing to operate.  It requires no advanced technology to make. This is the impressive part.  People could have made and used these things in every civilized and uncivilized culture going back to the stone age. But they didn’t, no one knew how.  The earliest reports of fire pistons show up in journals of explorers in the early 1800s.  The Smithsonian has a small collection dating from that period.  What a difference knowledge makes!

This  simple and useful device is still a relatively modern invention. Imagine the thousands of generations of humanity that would have appreciated the ability to instantly generate fire during the many rainy cold nights our they endured.

When we look for solutions to problems our tendency is to look toward new yet undiscovered technology. We don’t expect that something we can make on our own with our hands could change the world.

Thinking about these gadgets, watching the videos proved to be a perfect distraction.   I was no longer thinking of patients, forgetting about cancer cells and metastasis, unusual bowel habits,  and all the rest.  I had found my happy place.

Then wouldn’t you know, reality butts its ugly face back in.   Some of the websites that sell these piston things sell various other fire starting materials to use with them. It turns out that one of the most prized fire starting material is something called ‘tinder fungus.’ This is the mushroom called Inonotus obliquus that grows on birch trees.  It is commonly referred to as chaga mushroom.

I’ve written about Chaga mushroom several times over the past few years.  Chaga grows on birch trees and converts a chemical called betulin  in the bark into a betulinic acid. There have been several publications in the past suggesting that betulinic acid may be particularly useful for treating malignant melanoma.  Chaga mushrooms have a long history of use among native peoples as a treatment for skin tumors. 

Almost instantly fire pistons are a distant memory and PubMed is searching for new papers on chaga mushrooms, betulinic acid and cancer. 

Research interest continues.  Pubmed now lists about 370 papers for a search on betulinic acid and about a hundred if the field is narrowed to betulinic acid and cancer.  It’s not just skin cancer any more. An interesting paper was published in April on prostate cancer.  In it researchers from Case Western in Cleveland explain that betulinic acid triggers apoptosis in prostate cancer cells by suppressing TNFalpha-induced NF-kappaB activation.  

Some of you will appreciate how cool this is.  For those of who don’t, well never mind. I’m not going to explain it here.  The point though is that this is a mechanism that underlies most types of cancer.  As a result we are seeing papers that suggest that many cancers besides skin respond to betulinic acid. A paper in October 2007 showed it was useful against colon cancer cells. Actually not just on colon cancer cells but on cells that had become resistant to chemotherapy drugs.

In June 2007 Kessler et al published their results of testing betulinic acid against, “lung, colorectal, breast, prostate and cervical cancer, which are the prevalent cancer types characterized with highest mortalities in woman and men.”   After 48 hours, “in all cell lines tested colony formation was completely halted at remarkably equal BA (betulinic acid) concentrations that are likely attainable in vivo.”

Betulinic acid is not yet readily available.  Though commercially produced, it is being researched as a pharmaceutical agent.

There are also new papers on chaga mushroom.  One from January suggests possible benefit in treating liver tumors.    Chaga used to be difficult to find.  That has changed.  Our preferred mushroom supplier, JHS Naturals, now provides a steam extract of chaga.


A dear colleague, Mihal Davis ND LAc, who practices in Wisconsin recently brought me a gift of ground chaga that she prepares as a tea that is available through Woodland Essence.

You can buy small quantities of betulinic acid for topical use from a ‘make it yourself’ skin care company called Skin Actives:

The first I wrote about chaga was in December 2005

A second article in September 2007

More about fire pistons:


Make your own out of pvc tubing:


Mol Carcinog. 2008 Apr 28. [Epub ahead of print]Click here to read Links

    Betulinic acid suppresses constitutive and TNFalpha-induced NF-kappaB activation and induces apoptosis in human prostate carcinoma PC-3 cells.

    Rabi T, Shukla S, Gupta S.

    Department of Urology, The James & Eillen Dicke Research Laboratory, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

    Development of chemoresistance in androgen-refractory prostate cancer cells is partly due to constitutive activation of Rel/NF-kappaB transcription factors that regulate several cell survival and anti-apoptotic genes. In this study we examined whether betulinic acid (BetA), a pentacyclic triterpene from the bark of white birch, is effective in inhibiting NF-kappaB expression in androgen-refractory human prostate cancer cells exhibiting high constitutive NF-kappaB expression. Treatment of PC-3 cells with BetA inhibited DNA binding and reduced nuclear levels of the NF-kappaB/p65. BetA-mediated NF-kappaB inhibition involved decreased IKK activity and phosphorylation of IkappaBalpha at serine 32/36 followed by its degradation. Reporter assays revealed that NF-kappaB inhibition by BetA is transcriptionally active. These effects were found to correlate with a shift in Bax/Bcl-2 ratio and cleavage of poly(ADP)ribose polymerase more towards apoptosis. BetA also inhibited TNFalpha-induced activation of NF-kappaB via the IkappaBalpha pathway, thereby sensitizing the cells to TNFalpha-induced apoptosis. Our studies demonstrate that BetA effectively inhibits constitutive NF-kappaB activation and supports the rationale for targeting NF-kappaB through combination protocols with BetA in androgen-refractory prostate cancer. (c) 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2007 Oct;101(4):277-85.Click here to read Links

    Effect of betulinic acid on anticancer drug-resistant colon cancer cells.

    Jung GR, Kim KJ, Choi CH, Lee TB, Han SI, Han HK, Lim SC.

    Department of Pharmacology, College of Medicine, Chosun University, 488 Seosuk-dong, Dong-gu, Gwangju 501-140, Korea.

    Primary or acquired resistance of tumours to established chemotherapeutic regimens is a major concern in oncology. Attempts to improve the survival of cancer patients largely depend on strategies to prevent tumour cell resistance. 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU)-based chemotherapy with a combination of other drugs such as irinotecan (IRT) and oxaliplatin (OXT) has been reported to be effective, even though an optimal regimen has yet to be defined due to the relatively high toxicity of the procedure. The aim of this study was to examine the effect of betulinic acid (BetA) as a chemosensitizer for anticancer drug treatment in chemoresistant colon cancer cell lines. A chemoresistant cell line to 5-fluorouracil (SNU-C5/5FU-R), irinotecan (SNU-C5/IRT-R) and oxaliplatin (SNU-C5/OXT-R) treatment were derived from the wild-type colon adenocarcinoma cell line (SNU-C5/WT). The effect of BetA or a combination of anticancer drugs and BetA on the multidrug resistance-related genes, caspases, Bcl-2, Bad and cell death in the SNU-C5/WT and SNU-C5/R cell lines was analysed. BetA alone was an effective chemotherapeutic drug for the SNU-C5/WT, SNU-C5/5FU-R and SNU-C5/OXT-R cells. The combination of BetA with IRT or OXT was effective against SNU-C5/5FU-R cells, and the combination of BetA with 5-fluorouracil, IRT or OXT was effective against SNU-C5/OXT-R cells. BetA induced cancer cell death by apoptosis through the mitochondrial pathway. These findings indicate that the use of BetA as a chemosensitizer may be a new strategy to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy. However, further studies will be needed for confirmation.


Cancer Lett. 2007 Jun 18;251(1):132-45. Epub 2006 Dec 13.Click here to read Links

    Broad in vitro efficacy of plant-derived betulinic acid against cell lines derived from the most prevalent human cancer types.

    Kessler JH, Mullauer FB, de Roo GM, Medema JP.

    Laboratory for Experimental Oncology and Radiobiology, Center for Experimental and Molecular Medicine, Academic Medical Center, Meibergdreef 9, 1105 AZ Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

    Betulinic acid (BA) is a widely available plant-derived triterpene with reported activity against cancer cells of neuroectodermal origin and leukaemias. Treatment with BA was shown to protect mice against transplanted human melanoma and led to tumor regression. In contrast, cells from healthy tissues were resistant to BA and toxic side-effects in animals were absent. These findings have raised interest in the chemotherapeutical anti-cancer potential of BA. A comprehensive assessment of the efficacy of BA against the clinically most important cancer types is currently lacking. Therefore, we tested the in vitro sensitivity of broad cell line panels derived from lung, colorectal, breast, prostate and cervical cancer, which are the prevalent cancer types characterized with highest mortalities in woman and men. Multiple assays were used in order to allow a reliable assessment of anti-cancer efficacy of BA. After 48 h of treatment with BA, cell viability as assessed with MTT and cell death as measured with propidium iodide exclusion showed clear differences in sensitivity between cell lines. However, in all cell lines tested colony formation was completely halted at remarkably equal BA concentrations that are likely attainable in vivo. Our results substantiate the possible application of BA as a chemotherapeutic agent for the most prevalent human cancer types.

World J Gastroenterol. 2008 Jan 28;14(4):511-7.Click here to read Links

    Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) induces G0/G1 arrest and apoptosis in human hepatoma HepG2 cells.

    Youn MJ, Kim JK, Park SY, Kim Y, Kim SJ, Lee JS, Chai KY, Kim HJ, Cui MX, So HS, Kim KY, Park R.

    Vestibulocochlear Research Center, Wonkwang University School of Medicine, #344-2, Shinyoung-dong, Iksan, Jeonbuk 570-749, Korea.

    AIM: To investigate the anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects of Chaga mushroom (Inonotus obliquus) water extract on human hepatoma cell lines, HepG2 and Hep3B cells. METHODS: The cytotoxicity of Chaga extract was screened by 3-[4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2, 5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) assay. Morphological observation, flow cytometry analysis, Western blot were employed to elucidate the cytotoxic mechanism of Chaga extract. RESULTS: HepG2 cells were more sensitive to Chaga extract than Hep3B cells, as demonstrated by markedly reduced cell viability. Chaga extract inhibited the cell growth in a dose-dependent manner, which was accompanied with G0/G1-phase arrest and apoptotic cell death. In addition, G0/G1 arrest in the cell cycle was closely associated with down-regulation of p53, pRb, p27, cyclins D1, D2, E, cyclin-dependent kinase (Cdk) 2, Cdk4, and Cdk6 expression. CONCLUSION: Chaga mushroom may provide a new therapeutic option, as a potential anticancer agent, in the treatment of hepatoma.