Herbal remedy blamed for high cancer rate in Taiwan: study

April 9, 2012 by Kerry Sheridan

A toxic ingredient in a popular herbal remedy is linked to more than half of all cases of urinary tract cancer in Taiwan where use of traditional medicine is widespread, said a US study Monday.

Aristolochic acid (AA) is a potent human carcinogen that is found naturally in Aristolochia plants, an ingredient common in botanical Asian remedies for aiding weight loss, easing joint pain and improving stomach ailments.

The ancient herb has been touted around the world for thousands of years for everything from gout to childbirth, but scientists now know it carries serious risks of causing kidney disease and urinary cancers.

The latest research found it can interact with a person's DNA and form unique of exposure, as well as creating signals within tumor suppressing genes that indicate the carcinogen has been ingested.

In Taiwan, where previous research has shown about one-third of the population has taken AA in recent years, rates of urinary tract and are about four times higher than in Western countries where use is less common, said the findings in the .

"It is a rare tumor and Taiwan has the highest incidence of any country in the world," said lead author Arthur Grollman of the department of pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University in New York.

"The fact that Taiwan had the highest incidence both of cancer and this renal disease -- that was our clue that something was going on there," Grollman told AFP.

The research was based on 151 patients with cancer, of whom 60 percent showed specific mutations linked to the herbal remedy.

In particular, after being ingested the acid forms a unique kind of lesion in the renal cortex, and also gives rise to a particular mutational signature in the TP53 tumor suppressing gene, said the study.

The herb is known in Europe by the name birthwort because it was often given to women during childbirth. Derived from the Greek, "aristolochia" means noble birth.

"This has been used by every culture in the world from the earliest written record," said Grollman.

Signs of harm have emerged in recent decades, and the acid is blamed for causing a kidney disease called Balkan endemic nephropathy, first described in 1956, that afflicted rural farmers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Serbia.

The villagers were found to be baking seeds from a weed called Aristolochia clematitis in their bread.

In the 1990s, a group of Belgian women reported sudden late stage kidney failure after taking a weight loss drug that contained AA.

And even though many countries have taken steps to warn of the risks, the ingredient is difficult to control and still finds its way into products via the Internet, said Grollman, adding that most of the AA products currently being used in Taiwan are made in China.

"Many countries ban it but it is always available on the Internet. And in fact you can't ban it in the United States. You can only ban its importation."

The US Food and Drug Administration warned of the risks of aristolochic acid in 2001 after two patients developed serious after using botanical products containing it.

"Natural is not necessarily safe, nor is long-term usage," said Grollman.

Explore further: Study links toxic component in herbal remedies to kidney failure and cancer

More information: Paper: Aristolochic acid-associated urothelial carcinoma in Taiwan by Chung-Hsin Chen et al. PNAS. www.pnas.org/content/early/201 … /1119920109.abstract

Press release

Related Stories

Study links toxic component in herbal remedies to kidney failure and cancer

November 9, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Aristolochic acid, a component of a plant used in herbal remedies since ancient times and still used in certain  herbal medicines worldwide, leads  to kidney failure and upper urinary tract cancer ...

FDA clears Pfizer drug for advanced kidney cancer

January 27, 2012
(AP) -- The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new Pfizer drug for patients with advanced kidney cancer that has spread to other parts of the body despite treatment with at least one previous drug.

Recommended for you

Researchers discover a new target for 'triple-negative' breast cancer

November 20, 2017
So-called "triple-negative" breast cancer is a particularly aggressive and difficult-to-treat form. It accounts for only about 10 percent of breast cancer cases, but is responsible for about 25 percent of breast cancer fatalities.

Study reveals new mechanism used by cancer cells to disarm attacking immune cells

November 20, 2017
A new study by researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center - James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC - James) identifies a substance released by pancreatic cancer cells that protects ...

Clinical trial suggests new cell therapy for relapsed leukemia patients

November 20, 2017
A significant proportion of children and young adults with treatment-resistant B-cell leukemia who participated in a small study achieved remission with the help of a new form of gene therapy, according to researchers at ...

Cell-weighing method could help doctors choose cancer drugs

November 20, 2017
Doctors have many drugs available to treat multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. However, there is no way to predict, by genetic markers or other means, how a patient will respond to a particular drug. This can lead to ...

Lung cancer triggers pulmonary hypertension

November 17, 2017
Shortness of breath and respiratory distress often increase the suffering of advanced-stage lung cancer patients. These symptoms can be triggered by pulmonary hypertension, as scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Heart ...

Researchers discover an Achilles heel in a lethal leukemia

November 16, 2017
Researchers have discovered how a linkage between two proteins in acute myeloid leukemia enables cancer cells to resist chemotherapy and showed that disrupting the linkage could render the cells vulnerable to treatment. St. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.