The biology department at Oral Roberts University is in a dingy, overly complicated system of hallways, classrooms and labs. It smells like formaldehyde and cleaning supplies with a hint of fish tank—quickly explained by the bubbling tank at the end of one of the halls.
The office of William Ranahan, associate professor of biology at ORU, seems slightly out of place compared to the rest of the department, complete with coffee and crayon-drawn pictures from his sons.
“When I was a student here, the bio department was never very inviting, so I tried to change that when I came,” said Ranahan, who graduated from ORU in 2005.
Ranahan pulled out a tray of Petri dishes, explaining that this is where they grow the mushrooms they are studying to try to cure cancer.
“This is where it all happens.”
When he talks about how he ended up patenting a compound that could be a beneficial treatment for a previously untreatable type of cancer, Ranahan calls it “a God story.”
At age 18, Ranahan had no plans to be a scientist—he was planning to go to Annapolis to join the military, just like others in his family had done. However, he was convicted to pray about what God wanted to do with his life instead.
After telling God he’d do anything, he felt God told him to join an internship with an organization called Teen Mania. Ranahan went home, told his family he was going to Texas, packed up and drove off, not even knowing if he had been accepted yet.
Thankfully he did get accepted, and while he was there, he met his wife, who then joined him in fasting and praying a second time to ask God what he wanted them to do with their lives.
Ranahan says the answer came clearly again: “Go to ORU, get a degree in biology and get a Ph.D. in molecular genetics.”
During his time at ORU, he began learning—and practicing—constantly conversing with God, especially during mundane lab work.
After graduation, the Ranahans moved between the coasts—and their respective families—until they settled in Indiana, where family had a place for them to stay and a job for him. While they were there, he began attending Indiana University, pursuing his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology.
While he was researching at IU, he continued talking to God constantly, and began to be given ideas to try in the lab. This seemed to be successful, as he “discovered that the protein they were researching was a major driver for breast cancer.”
“We suddenly became a breast cancer lab. My future prospects started looking really good,” Ranahan said.
However, God had other plans. At the height of his research, Ranahan was pursued by ORU to teach, and he had a decision to make: leave his research and future opportunities or teach at a private university in Tulsa.
“God said ‘OK, just take this thing—that blood, sweat, and tears—and put it on the altar.’ And it hurt.”
Ranahan got the job at ORU and began teaching in 2013, at first doing what side research he could with the little equipment and no funding he had, since ORU was not a research institution. However, a new administration had also just arrived, and with it a new focus on research. So Ranahan started applying for grants, assembling research teams, and “putting things into place.” Students started presenting their research projects and winning awards.
His passion for cancer research continued to grow, motivated by watching his nephew almost die three times—not from the itself, but from chemotherapy.
“There’s got to be a better way,” Ranahan said. “I believe that [God] has put everything we need for optimum health in the earth.”
One day, someone asked him, “Have you thought about mushrooms?” So Ranahan started reading all he could about mushrooms and their health benefits.
A picture of the petri dish filled with bacteria-killing mold—penicillin—that Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered was going through his mind.
“What if we could do that but with cancer cells?” Ranahan asked himself. “What if we forced cancer cells to compete for space and resources against fungi? What if we took medicinal mushrooms and made them compete with cancer cells? Could they produce something that could kill cancer?”
In order to survive, mushrooms must “…figure out what they’re on, figure out how to break it down, or they die,” Ranahan explained. Mushrooms are a health food around the world, some countries even using them along with chemotherapy to treat cancer.
Soon after this discovery, ORU President William M. Wilson told the faculty he was creating a new president’s research fund containing $150,000 for all the faculty to apply for.
Ranahan asked for $52,500—35 percent of the entire fund.
“I think it’s a God idea,” he told the dean of his department. “God is just going to make a way.”
He ended up receiving the money from an external source that believed this project was from God, and began his research with various ORU students who were just as excited.
Through the Christmas break of 2016, team members took the mushroom and started growing in the lab. They began replacing the food it was given with cancer cells until those were all it was living on. It was breaking them down and feeding off of it—the first victory.
Now the team had to figure out how to capture what the mushrooms were secreting—the actual secret to breaking down the cancer cells.
“There are a whole bunch of ways that you can capture what they secrete … I picked one.”
Next, he took triple negative breast cancer cells—a currently incurable type of cancer—and put the solution on them. He also put it on normal mammary epithelia to see how it would react with healthy cells.
The mushroom’s compound killed 95 percent of the cancer cells within 24 hours.
“But that was not what was exciting.”
They found that it also not only did not harm the healthy mammary epithelia, selectively killing only cancer cells, but made the normal cells healthier.
“To see it killing one population and helping another is really crazy. Like that is insane.”
These were victories No. 2 and 3—and he says they came abnormally easily.
The next step was to identify what exactly “it” was. Faculty at ORU hit their limit with figuring it out, so they outsourced it. They expected to find hundreds of compounds within the essence, which would be nearly impossible to test and identify the combinations to discover what was killing the cancer. A few weeks ago, they were told that there were only three.
While the treatment is still in the preliminary stages of testing and research, “everything is looking hopeful,” said Ranahan. “The series of events that have led us to this point are remarkable.”
He pointed out that most of the time, research like this doesn’t go nearly as smoothly.
Ranahan gets quiet for a moment and looks at the pictures of the successful petri dishes on his computer screen.
“Who knows what’s going to happen next. My science side doubts everything … but I can’t deny how everything has led us to this point. It’s almost too good to be true, but I’m looking at the data.”
He doesn’t take the credit though.
“For the record, none of this is my idea. It’s not,” Ranahan said. “I thought it was a crazy idea. I still think it’s a crazy idea. This is a God thing, I don’t know how else to say it.”
The patent is pending for this process with Dr. Ranahan listed as the sole inventor and ORU owning the intellectual property, and funding has continued to come in through the President’s Research Fund at ORU and other private donations. More equipment and reagents are still needed, but Ranahan is positive about this, saying, “I trust we will have what we need when we need it.”
Since the compounds occur naturally, the researchers hope that the treatment could eventually be purchased over the counter and taken orally.
“If this is actually a real thing, it’s going to happen at this small, non-research institution.”
If everything goes according to plan, the final product could be only a few years away. However, it is more likely that it will take up to 10-15 years.
In the meantime, Ranahan will continue teaching students, as well as encouraging them to make prayer a larger part of their life.
“That whole hearing God’s voice thing? Yeah, you should try that.”