Australian ‘toxic’ traditional Chinese medicine curbed with DNA testing, say researchers

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

DNA auditing will ensure safe, legal TCMs in Australia, say researchers
DNA auditing will ensure safe, legal TCMs in Australia, say researchers
DNA sequencing on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) imported into Australia could prove invaluable in ensuring safe and legal product entry, suggests new research.

Scientific researchers from the University of Murdoch in Perth conducted DNA sequencing tests on 15 samples of TCMs seized at Australia’s border control.

Findings showed some to be mislabelled, containing potentially toxic ingredients, allergens and traces of endangered animal species.

Included among the samples tested were Kai Yeung pills, Ling Yang Ge Gen cold remedy, Laryngitis pills A and B and Saiga Antelope Horn powder. The study, published in the journal of PLoS Genetics is [available here]​.

Dr Mike Bunce, research leader and future fellow at Murdoch University, championed the use of genetic auditing in the complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) sector to quantify ingredients lists and detect toxic properties.

“Over the next few years I think that DNA audits of herbal CAM products, both pre and post-market, will become the best practice for regulatory agencies,”​ Bunce told FoodNavigator-Asia.

“Such a system can only bring increased fidelity to the sector,”​ he added.

Regulations suffice? Simply ‘rogue’ samples?

But the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia (CHC) said in a statement that regulation is currently sufficient and the study validates the country’s, “tight regulatory regime around therapeutic goods; widely regarded as a global benchmark,”​ as the products were seized by Australian Border Officials.

Dr Wendy Morrow, executive director of CHC, said that the samples tested in this study were “rogue”​ products and that the research should not “tarnish an entire industry”.

“It is important to understand that these study findings are not representative of products imported legally,”​ Morrow said.

However, Bunce said that “there is little evidence on the degree of non-compliance in this sector,”​ and suggested that “it would be naïve to think that border protection is full-proof.” ​Controls could be better he said, but this could cost large sums of money.

Morrow did acknowledge that care should be taken when purchasing complementary medicines online as the products bypass Australian standard checks.

Toxic, endangered ingredients

Findings showed a product labelled 100% Saiga antelope to contain ‘considerable quantities’ of goat and sheep DNA.

Another product, Mongnan Tianbao pills, was found to contain deer and cow DNA without labelling; “the latter of which may violate religious or cultural strictures,” ​Bunce said.

Some of the TCM samples contained the plant extracts Ephedra and Asarum that can be toxic if taken in the wrong dosage, without listed concentrations on the packaging.

Traces of trade restricted animals classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered were also identified in samples, including the Asiatic black bear.

The intricate potential of DNA auditing…

The study “demonstrates that deep sequencing via high-throughput sequencing (HTS) is an efficient and cost-effective way to audit highly processed TCM products and will assist in monitoring their legality and safety especially when plant reference databases become better established."

Bunce explained that initially, implementing equipment for such testing can be costly but that in the long-run it can be very cost-effective due to the amount and quality of DNA data obtained.

“The biological origin of ingredients within each remedy to be reliably determined,”​ they wrote, due to the complex list of ingredients and heterogeneous origins as well as subsequent processing into pills and powders.

Megan Coghlan, a PhD student of DNA techniques in wildlife forensics, said, “the approach has the ability to unravel complex mixtures of plant and animal products.”

Bruce said that, “auditing TCMs would assist in prosecuting individuals who seek to profit from the illegal trade in animal products,”​ and should the testing become widespread, it could drive a new level of regulation within the CAMs sector in Australia.

Bunce and his team have applied to the Australian National Health and Medicinal Research Council (NHMRC) for funding to expand testing and are set to hear back towards the end of 2012. “We are continuing to do the work on a shoe-string budget until then,”​ he said.

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1 comment

The norm not the exception

Posted by Jan Vlok,

The Cape Peninsula University in South Africa, myself and several masters students have tested more than 5000 samples of Chinese imported raw materials for the CAM's industry in South Africa. 100% of these materials failed!!!!! 90% did not meet their claimed Certificates of Analysis i.e. claimed polyphenols of 95% with actual measurements at 66%.
The very disturbing findings were that 99% of green tea's and grape seed extracts actually contained black wattle tannin extract destined for the leather tanning industry. These tannic acid compounds look the same as tea phenolics when doing a standard UV test but when a closer mass spec testing was done we found that the material had been adulterated with other materials not safe for human consumption.
A recent study published by Prof Benade of CPUT showed the almost every single omega 3 fatty acid pill sold in South Africa that comes from China, either did not contain omega 3 material or was only 30% of label claim. During a 2-day workshop held with the South African Government this week myself and the entire scientific community in South Africa advised that ALL Chinese material entering our country has to be tested.

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