Aristolochic acids (AA), a common ingredient in many herbal remedy supplements has been linked to cancer. Hospitals around the world have donated cancerous liver samples to complete the research study. Scientists discovered that the birthwort family of plants contains dangerous levels of aristolochic acids. Birthwort is commonly used in traditional medicine to promote healing and aid in childbirth.

Scientific research

A team of scientists published the findings from their research study in "Science Translational Medicine." The results showed that 78% of the collected Liver Cancer samples had been exposed to aristolochic acids.

The 98 samples were collected primarily from Taiwan and displayed very distinctive mutations associated with exposure to aristolochic acids.

The study was focused on the most common form of liver cancer: hepatocellular carcinoma. This form of cancer happens to also be the primary cause of death of people suffering from cirrhosis.

Researchers also studied samples from China, Korea, Japan, Europe, and North America. They looked for mutations specific for exposure to aristolochic acids in samples with hepatocellular carcinoma. Approximately 47% of the Chinese liver cancer samples showed signs of these specific mutations, and 13% of Korean liver samples displayed these mutations as well.

On the contrary, samples from North America, Japan, and Europe had much smaller results.

North American hepatocellular carcinoma samples with exposure to aristolochic acids were only at 4.8%. Japan and Europe were even lower with only 2.7% and 1.7% showing AA exposure. Scientists speculate that this is due to the fact that Herbal Remedies are not as popular in these countries.

A toxic history

Government warnings have been instated for several decades about the toxicity of aristolochic acids.

Scientists discovered that plants containing AA were extremely dangerous to humans a long time ago. Other studies have shown that ingesting any form of aristolochic acids can cause rapid kidney failure and urinary tract cancer.

As of now, only a few specific species of birthwort plants are regulated in Taiwan. There is currently no ban on all AA-containing plants.

This means that many people are actually getting cancer from herbal remedies that are said to be good for them.

Scientists warn that it is crucial to know what kinds of herbs are in traditional medicine supplements and remedies. Not everything that grows out of the ground is good for one's health.