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Herbal remedy blamed for cancer

2012-04-10 10:30

Washington - 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.

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 biomarkers of exposure, as well as creating signals within tumour 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 kidney cancer are about four times higher than in Western countries where use is less common, said the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unique lesion

"It is a rare tumour 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," said Grollman.

The research was based on 151 patients with urinary tract cancer, of whom 60% 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 tumour 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.

Risks

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 kidney disease after using botanical products containing it.

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

Comments
  • J-Man - 2012-04-10 11:31

    Thank god for science! ;)

      Trevor - 2012-04-10 12:43

      Indeed, Thank God for Science. Better not say that too loudly.

      Trevor - 2012-04-10 12:43

      Indeed, Thank God for Science. Better not say that too loudly.

  • Trevor - 2012-04-10 12:41

    Explain to me why 'western' medicine is any less natural than 'natural' medicine? Insulin is as natural as ginseng yet doctors and pharmaceuticals are lambasted for using toxic substances with side effects. Reading this article shows me two things: Anything in an overdose/prolonged dosage will have side effects, natural or synthetic Under dosing will have no effect, so reaching a therapeutic level is required where the risk of side effects are minimised against the reward of cure/chronic management. I'd also like to know how extensive the testing is that these so-called 'herbal' remedies undergo. If they were anything as strenuous or onerous as the ones the pharmaceuticals have to go through, I doubt very much whether any of these remedies would ever make it onto the market. Interesting to note that the British health has now delisted Homeopathic treatment as free because of lack of scientific evidence to it's efficacy. Ok, my rant is over. Just tired of the doctors and pharmaceuticals copping it in the neck all the time.

      Gary - 2012-04-10 13:17

      @Trevor. Science is definitely good, but what you fail to realise is that natural medicines are based on the same careful trial and error observations that science uses for studying medicines. Many of our most effective medicines come from natural remedies e.g. aspirin and Hoodia gordoni, clove oil for tooth ache, epsom salts for soaking infected wounds etc. There are many more harmful side-effects from synthetic drugs than there are from natural remedies. One simply has to look at the contra-indications for many of the medicines we take to see that often the cure is worse than the disease. As for natural medicines, rancid peanut butter is extremely carcinogenic yet no one would say that fresh peanut butter is not good for you.

      Gary - 2012-04-10 13:17

      @Trevor. Science is definitely good, but what you fail to realise is that natural medicines are based on the same careful trial and error observations that science uses for studying medicines. Many of our most effective medicines come from natural remedies e.g. aspirin and Hoodia gordoni, clove oil for tooth ache, epsom salts for soaking infected wounds etc. There are many more harmful side-effects from synthetic drugs than there are from natural remedies. One simply has to look at the contra-indications for many of the medicines we take to see that often the cure is worse than the disease. As for natural medicines, rancid peanut butter is extremely carcinogenic yet no one would say that fresh peanut butter is not good for you.

      Trevor - 2012-04-10 13:42

      Hi Gary, you most certainly have a point there. The majority of the items you've listed are symptomatic, like headaches, sepsis and toothache. My concern stems from more severe conditions like epilepsy, for example, where elements as natural as sodium are used to manage the condition. However, side effects exist like weight gain and infertility. But do you risk the potential side effects on the insert or do you risk having a seizure while you're driving? Which, in my case is very real because if I don't take my medication I will have an attack. Vaccines are also important, and certainly there are risks, again the majority have been proved to be unsubstantiated - Vaccines causing Autism controversy springs to mind. Risks borne in mind, what are the rewards? Polio wasn't virtually eradicated using natural remedies but rather through the polio vaccine. I believe pain can be treated symptomatically by complementary medicine, however the cause of the pain should be treated and cured with scientifically tested, evidence-based medicine. My gripe, mainly, is that natural, alternative medicine is not tested with the same rigour or by the same means by MCC/FDA etc as western medicine is prior to release into the market. Surely the same standards should apply to both?

      Trevor - 2012-04-10 13:42

      Hi Gary, you most certainly have a point there. The majority of the items you've listed are symptomatic, like headaches, sepsis and toothache. My concern stems from more severe conditions like epilepsy, for example, where elements as natural as sodium are used to manage the condition. However, side effects exist like weight gain and infertility. But do you risk the potential side effects on the insert or do you risk having a seizure while you're driving? Which, in my case is very real because if I don't take my medication I will have an attack. Vaccines are also important, and certainly there are risks, again the majority have been proved to be unsubstantiated - Vaccines causing Autism controversy springs to mind. Risks borne in mind, what are the rewards? Polio wasn't virtually eradicated using natural remedies but rather through the polio vaccine. I believe pain can be treated symptomatically by complementary medicine, however the cause of the pain should be treated and cured with scientifically tested, evidence-based medicine. My gripe, mainly, is that natural, alternative medicine is not tested with the same rigour or by the same means by MCC/FDA etc as western medicine is prior to release into the market. Surely the same standards should apply to both?

      Trevor - 2012-04-10 13:46

      Further to my gripe is that I am concerned that consumers are misled by the range of ability of natural medicine. PS: the epileptic medication is a Sodium Valproate and Lamotrigine.

      Trevor - 2012-04-10 13:46

      Further to my gripe is that I am concerned that consumers are misled by the range of ability of natural medicine. PS: the epileptic medication is a Sodium Valproate and Lamotrigine.

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