Kidney stones. Snakebites. Head wounds. To the ancients, a weed called birthwort was a wonder drug that treated them all, and more.
Medical detectives, however, are finding that the ancient remedy likely has caused centuries of kidney failure and cancer, as well as being the culprit in a widespread syndrome of kidney disease in some parts of the world.
“The big clue was the plant itself,” says pharmacologist Arthur Grollman of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. “Once it was appreciated that it contained a potent kidney toxin and human carcinogen, we could get to the bottom of things.”
Grollman and colleagues have unraveled a genetic signature left behind by birthwort in cases of cancers and kidney failure, as reported in the March journal of Kidney International. And in upcoming work, they report signs that use of the drug in Chinese medicines may be responsible for Taiwan’s sky-high rate of kidney disease.
Tip: @Blue_Wode on Twitter
This is a MAJOR issue in dietary supplements, herbal medicines and Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments that are basically unregulated.
As this piece notes, the U.S. Public Health Service added aristolochic acid to its list of human carcinogens in 2009. But there may be other hazardous traditional remedies out there on health food store shelves we don’t know about yet. Under U.S. law, dietary supplements aren’t subject to the same safety testing that drugs and other medical treatments must undergo. THIS IS NOT WIDELY KNOWN BY CONSUMERS. They assume if it’s out there for sale, it must be safe. Very wrong. Herbs can not only be toxic but they can also interfere with prescription meds. In addition, quality testing is not rigorous. You just don’t know what you are getting.
“An important message for Americans is that Congress is inviting similar problems in our country by not holding dietary supplements — which includes herbs —to reasonable standards of safety and efficacy,” Grollman says. “We simply don’t know whether other herbal supplements like Aristolochia are being marketed right now.”