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Acid in Traditional Chinese Medicine May Cause Liver Cancers, Study Finds

A compound present in some herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine is linked to liver cancers, a new study revealed.

Scientists in Singapore and Taiwan sequenced the DNA of 98 liver cancers before running a mutational signature analysis. They found that more than three-quarters of the cancers — which all came from Taiwan — had high levels of mutations related to aristolochic acid (AA), a natural compound used in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Aristolochia clematitis. Image via Wikimedia Commons / H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aristolochia and Asarum plants contain AA. According to Decoded Science, seven out of approximately 5,000 herbs and other substances used in TCM contain the compound, which serves a variety of purposes.

Xi Xin, one of such herbs, reportedly contains “negligible” amounts, and thus more frequently used to treat joint and respiratory problems.

Asarum sieboldii. Image via Wikimedia Commons / Alpsdake (CC BY-SA 4.0)

China has since imposed a restriction on the use of some herbs containing AA; Two of these are Guang Fang Ji (Radix Aristolochiae Fangchi) and Guan Mu Tong (Caulis Aristolochiae Manshuriensis), which both have high amounts of AA.

Some herbs have also banned in Taiwan since 2003, while Europe and Singapore banned the compound in 2001 and 2004, respectively, Asian Scientist Magazine noted.

Aristolochia macrophylla. Image via Wikimedia Commons / Sten Porse (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In addition to identifying a link, the scientists, led by Steven Rozen of Duke-NUS Medical School, found a high prevalence of AA exposure in other parts of East and Southeast Asia after reviewing mutations on 1,400 cases of liver cancers worldwide.

“This also was an unexpected finding. We did not expect that exposure to AA was so prevalent in so many different areas,” Rozen said.

The study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, is a follow-up to the team’s 2013 research that established the connection between AA and urinary tract cancers.

Featured Images: Aristolochia clematitis [Cropped, Collaged]: Wikimedia Commons / H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0); Metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma [Cropped, Collaged]: Flickr / Yale Rosen (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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