Herbal remedy used to treat kidney ailments causes kidney ailments

A plant known as "birthwort," popular in Asian and European herbal medicine for hundreds of years, causes kidney failure and cancer. Dan Vergano at USA Today digs into the fascinating medical detective work that solved this mystery: scientists compared genetic mutations in the tissue of humans and lab mice who'd been poisoned by the plant's toxic component:

"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.

Read more: Herbal 'remedy' may trigger widespread kidney failure – USATODAY.com.


  1. So what you’re saying is if I dilute this to avogadran heights I’ll cure kidney cancer?

    1. Sure, that method is proven to work up to 100% as well as voodoo and placebos.  So it is clearly better than nothing. 
      But it’s a lot of work.  6.02214129(27)×1023 mol−1
      Cool word.  Thanx.

  2. The dosage makes the poison. There are plenty of drugs that can be beneficial for an illness in low doses but can make it worse in higher doses. Just because this plant can cause kidney damage doesn’t mean it isn’t also a cure for kidney diseases, there’s no way to know without more information.

    1. You’re confused.  While it is true that most substances (even water) are toxic if administered in large quantities, that does not mean that small quantities of a “potent kidney toxin and human carcinogen” might be able to cure kidney ailments in small doses. Pliny was obiously just making a joke about the widely known fact that homeopathy is stupid.

      1. Did I say that the fact that it’s toxic in large doses means it’s more likely to be beneficial in small doses? No, clearly I did not. Keep pretending though.

      2. A conventional example would be like a doctor recommending the potentially nephrotoxic acetominophen for kidney stones.   For short term use at recommended dosage, it’s not considered to be a significant risk. 

        1. Acetaminophen for kidney stone pain? Fuck that. Find me the most powerful painkiller in the world and have it administered in a room with Jeremy Clarkson telling me that it’s “The most powerful painkiller…in the world.”

    2. Of course the issue with herbal remedies is that the dosage is difficult to control. As soon as the active ingrediants efficacy is proven and distibutable in controlled doses then it becomes everyday medicine.

    3. How many cases are there where the poison is also the cure? Radiation for cancer treatment is the only one I can come up with off the top of my head. Vitamins are similar in that they are commonly beneficial in certain amounts and toxic in higher amounts, but I’m not aware of any cases where the benefit is the same as the toxic effect, i.e. a vitamin healing a condition in small doses and causing the same condition in high doses. However, it’s also not an area I have more than passing familiarity with.

      My personal view is that a lot of these traditional remedies need to be studied by Western medicine in a controlled manner. I’m sure a lot of them have beneficial effects, but without testing we won’t know for certain which ones work, in what dosages, and what interactions they’ll have with other medicines or with each other.

        1. I’m agreeing that these things need study (and supporting this article), so you’re kind of responding to the wrong person. Alexkrupp is the person talking about this possibly being a dosage issue rather than a straight-up toxic herb.

    4. “The dosage makes the poison.”
      “Just because this plant can cause kidney damage doesn’t mean it isn’t also a cure for kidney diseases, there’s no way to know without more information.”

      Except that we know the dosages being used and we know plenty of information about it.

      Good god, it burns.

  3. Are you insinuating that the mainland Chinese might have a grudge against Taiwan?

    Means, motive, and opportunity are three important things to keep in mind.

  4. As an individual with both renal failure and cancer, this is a common motif I see all the time. People around you want to help in some way, but since they aren’t researchers or well-versed in these types of illnesses, they go for the stuff that they feel is understandable. I get into fights with people all the time about refusing to take this or that homeopathic course. I actually did the first year alongside chemo and dialysis, but it was clear after a while that my homeopath (who happened to be a lifelong friend) really didn’t know anything. It’s sort of like reverse faith healing. The homeopath believed so wholeheartedly that it should work that it therefore does work. Its sad really. Having joined this exclusive medical group I see so many patients give up and accept the far less painful false therapies of pseudo-science. The word I give for that group is “dead.” If you know you’re going to die anyway there’s no point in heading down that path, but it’s more akin to placebo and faith healing. The real power to this sort of “healing” is the chemical production ability of your brain. Not the plants, not the volcanic ash, not the  dead syphillis pellets. On top of that you get Asian miracle cures like birthwort which can do you in. Outside of your brain, your kidneys are the most complicated organs. Don’t mess with them.

    1. How does that song go?

      “You cannot go against nature,
      ’cause when you do
      go against nature,
      it’s part of nature too”

      Love And Rockets, but I’m trying to remember that they paraphrased it from William Blake and it comes up hazy.

      1. WTF?! I love that song! As a matter of fact it’s been on my most recent bike riding playlist lately! Double rainbow backflip coincidence! What does it mean?!

  5. So you’re saying that  if we mix this with ground tiger penis, we could kill two birds with one stone.

  6. No surprise here. I’m on the mailing list for Health Canada “Warnings, Advisories and Alerts” and receive a monotonous trickle of posts regarding alternative and natural medicine products. To be fair, there are also warnings about mainstream medicine, such as the recent mis-packaged isoproterenol ampoules, and the ongoing shortage of Sandoz products, but the vast majority of alerts are about natural health products. 

    Here’s a sample from 2012 thus far:

    ~ 17 weight loss products containing ingredients that were once licenced in Canada, but no longer are due to safety concerns (sibutramine and/or phenolphthalein);

    ~ Chinese products containing undeclared ingredients such as dexamethasone, prednisolone, furosemide,  acetaminophen, chlorpheniramine, and a particularly nasty and toxic anti-inflammatory no longer approved for sale in Canada, phenylbutazone;

    ~ Ying Da Wang tablets, found to contain undeclared sildenafil (Viagra);

    ~ Uprizing, found to contain an undeclared anabolic steroid;

    ~ A couple of products from Hong Kong containing arsenic and mercury;

    ~ Some more slimming aids from China found to contain undeclared drugs (losartan, atorvastatin, thyroxine, sibutramine and/or phenolphthalein);

    ~ Another Chinese weight loss product found to contain fenfluramine, a drug pulled from the Canadian market in the 90s because of its association with primary pulmonary hypertension, a fatal condition. 

    The sins of pharmaceutical companies are legion. But imagine if you will these companies operating without regulation, and you have the world of complementary and alternative medicines.

    1. In a country where the milk and honey have random drugs in them, I’m going to assume that the random drugs have other random drugs in them.

  7. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this, knowing I’ll probably get trolled/flamed:

    I’m in school for Chinese medicine. This herb is not used by NCCAOM licensed practitioners. We specifically learn NOT to use this herb, as well as which other species may also contain aristolochic acid. I just took the NCCAOM board exam for Chinese herbs and there were several questions about these herbs, as well as about other herbs that could be toxic when used for long periods of time. This information is readily available in our primary textbooks. Reputable herb companies (those that only sell to NCCAOM licensed practitioners) rigorously screen for aristolochic acid as well as for heavy metals and other adulterants. 

    Personally and professionally, I think herbalism should be more highly regulated, the way acupuncture is. To be a nationally licensed acupuncturist requires 1600 hours of supervised clinical training, a master’s degree (including med-school level pathophysiology classes), and a series of rigorous board exams. 

    Xeni, we once had a brief conversation on twitter about idiots who were telling you to just take herbs instead of getting chemo. I said that any licensed practitioner worth their salt would never claim to cure cancer, or recommend solely using TCM. That’d just be criminal negligence. You responded that you had great respect for TCM.  I hope that this article doesn’t mean that you’ve lost it. 

    1. What’s the difference between a NCCAOM licensed practitioner and a Sadist? 

      The sadist has newer magazines. 

      (Consider yourself trolled)

  8. For the Big Pharma apologists, how is it that people taking prescription meds,not overdosing on them but taking them at the *prescribed* dosage given to them by their drs, manage to die in the Thousands every year from toxic reactions, yet the comparable death rate from people taking herbal cures is what…one or two ??

    .How is it that huge corporate pharmaceutical co’s can bypass the restrictions that the FDA put upon, um, let’s say, CHERRY FARMERS for example, and blithely flood the marketplace with poorly tested dangerous substances that have sickened and killed large sums of consumers…?.Why were Cherry Farmers threatened with a lawsuit by the FDA when they advertised  the truthful claim that studies have proven cherries to be naturally high in heart healthy substances, the FDA claiming that since it was a study they did not fund, it was invalid and the statement had to be removed from cherry packaging ,or else..?Where is the rabid watch-dogging of the dangerous pharmaceuticals ?
    How many people have been sickened or died from CHERRY consumption ??Yes indeed the seal of “scientific approval” is most definitely FOR SALE>For the love of sanity take the blinders off and come out of the fog.You can bet there’s a political agenda being served by the demonizing of  “birth wort”, and anyone paying attention can see this has been an unsavory  trend for quite some time.

    1. I’m sorry, do you have any citations or are you just pulling numbers out of your ass?

      Can you please show me a reputable (i.e. peer reviewed) study which supports your statement? And please don’t tell “They’re all in Big Pharma’s pockets”.

      Regarding the FDA statement, the huge corporations don’t bypass the restrictions. They present data from years of testing using protocols the FDA requires. The Cherry Farmers did not. You cannot make definitive claims of health benefits of a product unless you can back up your claim to the FDA. Which requires years of testing and trials following very rigid protocols. This can be VERY expensive (it is not funded by the FDA at all) for the company making the product.

      This can be obstructionist at times as it is expensive to do this, HOWEVER it is much better than non-regulated mess that was Patent Medicines and Snake Oil.

    2. “yet the comparable death rate from people taking herbal cures is what…one or two ??”

      no no, just wanted to repeat that.

    3. Cherries are indeed very hazardous. 

      They killed Zachary Taylor despite the heroic attempts of his to doctors to save him. Despite the ipecac, calomel, opium, quinine, blistering and bleeding administered to  him, he still died. 

      Cherries are simply dangerous.

  9. “There’s a word for alternative medicine that works: Medicine.” – Tim Minchin

    1. Yes, because shortly after alternative medical types started recommending exercise, whole grains and low meat diets, it was just a short century or so until conventional medicine said maybe it wasn’t a bad idea.  

  10. If the FDA or similar organization were to conclude that there is an ACTUAL noticeable drug-like reaction to the varied homeopathic herbs available, said herbs would be controlled. No control = no verified pharmacological effect. This junk should be pulled off the shelves ASAP. The generally non-effective and non-toxic other herbs (and animal parts) (lets not forget the animal parts that are sold as remedies) should certainly be tested particularly in view of where they are grown, harvested and under what conditions they are dried, cured or otherwise prepared. Tea from China is frequently dried in warehouses heated by running diesel trucks inside the warehouse, unventilated. Yummy!

  11. This article was about scientists tracing nephropathy and carcinomas in humans to aristolochia they had already taken. It has nothing to do with lab trials or anything else you said, which is only to impugn anyone who finds something wrong with an herb, so it’s not their bias I would worry about.

  12. “whenever *science for sale* takes on the task of investigating herbal cures, they tend to stuff the lab mice with such absurdly high doses of the substance, accuracy is sacrificed upon the altar of agenda”

    Keep making things up out of whole cloth, it’s really proving your side.

  13. In studies, wearing a seatbelt has been found to be even more effective than even large doses of comfrey.

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