Herbal medicine ingredient linked to cancer

This team of researchers has uncovered the world's most potent cancer-causing substance.

TAIPEI - Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital yesterday published research showing that aristolochic acid is a carcinogen that can cause gene mutation.

Science Translational Medicine, an interdisciplinary medical journal established in October 2009 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published the research as the cover story of its most recent issue.

Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital worked with National Cancer Centre Singapore to discover all the damage aristolochic acid can have on human bodies, including causing cancer and gene mutation.

According to the research, aristolochic acid, a natural product of aristolochia plants found in herbal remedies and health supplements, is the strongest source of carcinogens thus far discovered.

The Department of Health (DOH), now named the Ministry of Health and Welfare, banned use of any herbal medicines that contain aristolochic acid in 2003 due to potential kidney damage. However, the research also found that aristolochic acid can not only cause lasting damage to kidneys but also to livers.

Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital's research team said that people should not try any herbal remedies that contain aristolochic acid and if they start to develop symptoms like feeling pain or bumps around waist area, they should go to a doctor immediately for professional consultation.

In April 2001, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a consumer health alert against consuming botanical products that were sold as traditional medicines or as ingredients in dietary supplements that contained aristolochic acid.

Aristolochic Acid Repercussions

Wu Ming-ling, head of Taipei Veterans General Hospital's Toxicology Department, said that countless people have been affected by the use of herbal remedies that contain aristolochic acid, often suffering from severe kidney damage.

Wu said that Belgium published research in 1993 that aristolochic acid could cause kidney disease and Taipei Veterans General Hospital confirmed the results in 2003.

"However," Wu said, "when Taipei Veterans General Hospital asked the DOH to ban aristolochic acid use, nearly 100 Chinese medicine doctors strongly opposed it."

Wu published research in 2003 that some kidney cancer and bladder cancer patients have the habit of consuming herbal medicines that contain aristolochic acid over a long period of time.

According to the DOH's statistics, about 20 per cent of patients who have to undergo dialysis have the habit of randomly consuming herbal medicines. However, Wu said that medical experts cannot confirm which substance in herbal medicines cause such severe damage to kidneys.

The DOH invited many medical experts to form a group to discuss the possible damage aristolochic acid could bring to human bodies, and in November 2003 the DOH officially announced a ban on the usage of any herbal medicines or health supplies that contain aristolochic acid.