A once celebrated cure all, thought to be a wonder drug, is now being linked to kidney failure and other ailments, according to an article published in Kidney International.
According to the report, pharmacologist Arthur Grollman of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University and colleagues have identified a genetic signature left behind by birthwort in cases of cancers and kidney failure.
“The big clue was the plant itself,” Grollman told USA Today. “Once it was appreciated that it contained a potent kidney toxin and human carcinogen, we could get to the bottom of things.”
But, apparently this isn’t the first known dangers of the herb. Medical detectives have found that the centuries-old and popular herbal remedy has caused hundreds of years of illness.
But, where does all of this leave us today here in the United States? Under 1994 “dietary supplement” laws, U.S. manufacturers bear the responsibility for keeping Aristolochia out of herbal products, following FDA warnings. The agency detains any imported remedies that list the herb as an ingredient, and last year updated its list of traditional medicines thought to contain birthwort or its cousins.
“Banning the herb doesn’t make everything safe, because the cancer it may have initiated takes decades to develop,” Grollman says. However, since early treatment would benefit patients, he says, “getting out the word about Aristolochia’s toxicity would certainly help.”
In response to the earlier birthwort findings, the U.S. Public Health Service added aristolochic acid to its list of human carcinogens in 2009. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other traditional remedies posing just as much concern as birthwort out there on health food store shelves, because under U.S. law, such dietary supplements aren’t subject to the same safety testing that drugs and other medical treatments must undergo.
“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.”