After a recent study found that herbs widely used in China contain a compound associated with liver cancer, the country’s food and drug administration responded Monday by asserting that it properly supervises traditional Chinese medicine.
The study, published Oct. 23 in the medical journal Science Translational Medicine, examined DNA in 1,400 liver cancers from around the world and discovered a link between aristolochic acid (AA) and a certain genetic mutation associated with the disease. AA is found in many herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and 47 percent of the DNA samples from the Chinese mainland showed AA-related mutations.
The study also found that although plants around the world contain AA, people in East Asia and Southeast Asia are more likely to be exposed to the compound. In China, herbs that contain AA have been used in TCM for over a thousand years, and the study has once again raised concerns regarding the safety of TCM treatments.
However, while acknowledging the widely accepted theory that AA can damage kidneys and lead to renal cancer, the Chinese Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) said that there is currently “no strong evidence” to support the theory that AA is directly related to liver cancer.
“Some people agree with the study, while others have raised doubts,” the spokesperson said, adding that China has taken measures to control the risk of medicines containing AA since 2003. That year, the country banned the use of herbs with high levels of AA and limited the use of so-called Aristolochiaceae plants to just their roots, which it said contained “barely any” AA.
The 2003 ban came after a public outcry over an oft-prescribed TCM drug that was reported to cause uremia. That medicine also contained AA.
Tu Pengfei, a professor at Peking University’s School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, told Sixth Tone that the damage caused by AA is irreversible. He said some medications that contain AA are still common in southern China, and are discretely prescribed.
Aristolochiaceae herbs are traditionally used to cure coughing and have also been prescribed to facilitate weight loss. AA was officially banned in Europe in 2001 and in the U.S. a year later, after the acid’s link to kidney failure was discovered.
Also on Monday, the CFDA listed 47 medications available on the Chinese market that contain the compound, as well as 24 medications that “might contain” AA.
“Medicines containing AA have been used in our country for more than a thousand years,” the spokesperson said. However, they acknowledged that AA can cause kidney damage and cancer, and that patients should therefore be aware of the risks and strictly follow doctors’ orders.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Bluejeanimage/VCG)