Is Birthwort bad for the Kidney?

Upper urinary tract cancer and kidney failure associated with component of Aristolochia

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) People have used herbal remedies for thousands of years to treat illness, lose weight, and boost their health in general. The effectiveness of many of these remedies remains unclear. Some may even be harmful.

Consuming aristolochic acid, a component found in Aristolochia herbs, may lead to kidney failure and upper urinary tract cancer.

"Talk to your doctor before starting any herbal remedies."

In an earlier study, Arthur Grollman, M.D., of Stony Brook University School of Medicine, and colleagues showed that aristolochic acid was to blame for the high rate kidney damage in the Balkans.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes aristolochic acid as a harmful substance associated with both kidney disease and cancer. People became aware of these potential risks when a group of healthy Belgian woman ate Aristolochia herbs (also called birthwort or pipeline) to lose weight and subsequently developed kidney failure and upper urinary tract cancer.

After that, other cases of kidney damage and cancer caused by aristolochic acid popped up around the world.

Drawing on their previous findings, Dr. Grollman and an international team of researchers wanted to see if the use of Aristolochia was linked to the high rates of kidney disease and upper urinary tract cancer in Taiwan.

The researchers pulled DNA from the tumors of 151 patients with upper urinary tract cancer. They found evidence of aristolochic acid in the kidney cortex (the outer part of the kidney) of 83 percent of these patients.

They also found changes in TP53, a gene that has been linked to many types of cancer. A little over 55 percent of the 151 patients had this genetic mutation.

"We believe our latest research highlights the importance of a long-overlooked disease that affects many individuals in Taiwan, and, by extension, in China and other countries worldwide where Aristolochia herbal remedies traditionally have been used for medicinal purposes," says Dr. Grollman.

He goes on to explain that the study's results show the genetic mutations, combined with the DNA findings, are signs of exposure to aristolochic acid.

Dr. Grollman concludes that his team's findings give public health officials a starting point to develop strategies to eliminate kidney damage and cancer caused by aristolochic acid.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Zickler Family Foundation.

The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Review Date: 
April 10, 2012
Last Updated:
April 11, 2012