10/26/2017 12:30 EDT | Updated 10/26/2017 12:30 EDT

Canadians Cautioned Not To Seek Out Banned Chinese Medicine Linked To Liver Cancer

The herbal compound can still be found online.

Traditional chinese medicine herbs and remedies in jars.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Traditional chinese medicine herbs and remedies in jars.

A leading expert is reminding Canadians not to self-prescribe after a new study found that an herbal compound used in Traditional Chinese Medicine may cause liver cancers.

Aristolochic acid which has previously been linked to kidney failure and cancers of the urinary tract still has widespread exposure throughout Asia and traces of the compound were found in 4.8 per cent of liver cancers in North America, according to the October study published in Science Translational Medicine.

Don't try to be self-doctoring. Consult with a specialist.Dr. Cedric Cheung

Canadians must be cautious to only take medicines that come from a reliable source, Dr. Cedric Cheung, the national president of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada, and the vice-president of the World Federation of Acupuncture-Moxibustion Societies, told HuffPost Canada.

"If it comes from a reliable source, it should be safe. If not, anything can be dangerous, including western medication," Cheung said.

"Don't try to be self-doctoring. Consult with a specialist."

Use of aristolochic acid is restricted in Canada and other countries. But it is still available on the internet and "in alternate formulations," the authors wrote in the study.

Chinese Traditional Medicine Use in Canada

Chinese herbal medicine is primarily plant-based, and uses a "combination of different herbs to balance the yin and yang energy patterns of the body," according to the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Thornhill, Ont.

Use of aristolochic acid in natural health products is restricted in Canada. "Canadian manufacturers, importers and retailers were directed in 2001 to remove all herbal products containing aristolochic acid from their shelves," The Canadian Medical Association Journal notes.

But Health Canada had to reissue a warning to Canadians in 2004 over concerns that the product was still available in medicines purchased online, the journal added.

The practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine is not regulated nationwide. British Columbia and Ontario regulate acupuncturists as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners who practise herbology, according to The Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada. Alberta, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador regulate acupuncturists only, the association says.

The Link To Liver Cancer

Aristolochic acid is a compound found in seven herbs commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, according to Decoded Science.

Researchers in the October study sequenced the DNA of 98 liver cancers in Taiwan where the compound has been banned for medicinal use since 2003 and found that 78 per cent of those cancers showed exposure to aristolochic acid.

They then looked at data from 1,400 liver cancers across the globe and found high exposure in China (47 per cent) and Southeast Asia (29 per cent). In one U.S. hospital, 22 per cent of 87 liver cancers in people of Asian descent had the genetic signature for aristolochic acid exposure, according to the study.

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