β-glucans are complex polysaccharides that are found in several plants and foods, including mushrooms. β-glucans display an array of potentially therapeutic properties. β-glucans have metabolic and gastro-intestinal effects, modulating the gut microbiome, altering lipid and glucose metabolism, reducing cholesterol, leading to their investigation as potential therapies for metabolic syndrome, obesity and diet regulation, gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel, and to reduce cardiovascular and diabetes risk. β-glucans also have immune-modulating effects, leading to their investigation as adjuvant agents for cancers (solid and haematological malignancies), for immune-mediated conditions (e.g., allergic rhinitis, respiratory infections), and to enhance wound healing. The therapeutic potential of β-glucans is evidenced by the fact that two glucan isolates were licensed as drugs in Japan as immune-adjuvant therapy for cancer in 1980. Significant challenges exist to further clinical testing and translation of β-glucans. The diverse range of conditions for which β-glucans are in clinical testing underlines the incomplete understanding of the diverse mechanisms of action of β-glucans, a key knowledge gap. Furthermore, important differences appear to exist in the effects of apparently similar β-glucan preparations, which may be due to differences in sources and extraction procedures, another poorly understood issue. This review will describe the biology, potential mechanisms of action and key therapeutic targets being investigated in clinical trials of β-glucans and identify and discuss the key challenges to successful translation of this intriguing potential therapeutic.
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