Herbal Remedy, Aristolochic Acid, Causes Cancer: Natural Products Aren’t Always Safe

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Home / Herbal Remedy, Aristolochic Acid, Causes Cancer: Natural Products Aren’t Always Safe
Wild ginger has been used in herbal medicines that have been linked to cancers. Image by Bill Bouton.

Wild ginger has been used in herbal medicines that have been linked to cancers. Image by Bill Bouton.

Natural remedies aren’t always safe – a traditional Chinese medicinal treatment has now been linked with not only kidney disease but also cancer.

Aristolochic acid has been commonly used in Chinese herbal medicine to treat a wide variety of aliments including arthritis, gout, and inflammation. The natural remedy comes from the  Aristolochia (also known as birthworts, pipevines, or Dutchman’s Pipes) and Asarum (known as wild ginger) plants.

In 2001, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a letter to consumers and healthcare professionals about the concern over the use of supplements and products containing aristolochic acid as it has been associated with nephropathy (kidney disease).

New research has also found that aristolochic acid is linked to cancer.

Herbal Medicine’s Link to Cancer

In a new study published in the journal of Science Traditional Medicine on August 7, 2013 entitled, “Mutational Signature of Aristolochic Acid Exposure as Revealed by Whole-Exome Sequencing,” Researchers used whole-exome sequencing on 19 Taiwanese people who had upper urinary tract cancers and were exposed to the aristolochic acid, and seven patients with no exposure.

Whole-exome sequencing carefully looks at the human genome that would contain mutations that are associated with cancer. This technique has allowed researchers to directly link cancer and aritolochic acid.

Researchers found an average of 753 mutations in each tumor in the group that was exposed to the aristolochic acid and only 91 tumors in the group that wasn’t exposed. According to Science Daily, this number of mutations is more than what is found in melanomas caused by ultraviolet radiation and lung cancer from smoking.

Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy: A Entirely Preventable Disease

Arc also comes from the Aristolochia clematitis plant. Image by Chrizz.

Aristolochic acid also comes from the Aristolochia clematitis plant. Image by Chrizz.

According to the National Toxicology Program, human studies have show that aristolochic acid is linked to renal cancer, urinary bladder cancer, urinary tract cancer, kidney disease, and renal disease.

In one study entitled, “The Epidemiology, Diagnosis, and Management of Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy: A Narrative Review,” researchers examine the increase in nephropathy, or kidney disease, due to aristolochic acid and the lack of regulation on herbal medication.

According to researchers, the aristolochic acid has been – and continues to be – used for the treatment of eczema, acne, liver symptoms, arthritis, and chronic pain.

Researchers also discovered that patients with aristolochic acid nephropathy showed an unusually fast progression to end-stage renal (kidney) disease.

Unlike normal cases of end-stage renal (kidney) disease, in which transplants and dialysis are forms of treatment, with aristolochic acid nephropathy, there is no known treatment that can reverse or delay the progression of this form of disease.

This preventable disease could be eliminated if tighter regulations were in place to prevent people from buying aristolochic acid online and abroad.

Aristolochic Acid: Cancer and Kidney Disease

Not only did researchers discover a definite link between aristolochic acid and cancer, but they also discovered how powerful whole-exome sequencing can be.

Genome sequencing could be used to pinpoint carcingogens in a large group of like cancers that occur within a specific group of people, location, or during a certain period of time.

In the second study, researchers explain that this entirely preventable disease can be eliminated, once this product it is no longer being sold online or for purchase in other countries.

What’s the bottom line? Natural remedies aren’t always healthy, so ask your doctor before using any supplement or herbal remedy.

Resources:

Gökmen, M.,Cosyns, J., Arlt, V., et al. The Epidemiology, Diagnosis, and Management of Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy: A Narrative Review. (2013). Annals of Internal Medicine. Volume 158 Number 6. Accessed August 9, 2013.

National Toxicology Program. Aristolochic acid. Accessed August 9, 2013.

Poon, S., Pang, S., McPherson, J.R., et al. Genome-Wide Mutational Signatures of Aristolochic Acid and Its Application as a Screening Tool. Science Translational Medicine. )2013). Science Traditional Medicine. Accessed August 9, 2013.

Science Daily. Scientists Use Genome Sequencing to Demonstrate Herbal Remedy Causes Upper Urinary Tract Cancers. (2013). Accessed August 9, 2013.

Renal and Urology News. Aristolochic Acid Nephropathy, a Global Health Problem. (2013). Accessed August 9, 2013.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Aritolochic Acid: Safety Alert. (2013). Accessed August 9, 2013.

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