Aim: To explore the hypothesis that chronic dietary poisoning by aristolochic acid could account for the unique geographical distribution, specific pattern of tubulointerstitial fibrosis, occurrence of chronic renal insufficiency, and an increased risk of developing upper urothelial cancer, all of which are associated with endemic nephropathy.
Methods: This case-controlled epidemiologic study consisted of three groups of subjects residing in an endemic region of Croatia: (a) patients meeting WHO criteria for endemic nephropathy (n=28), (b) individuals who have been treated for renal insufficiency secondary to other forms of renal disease (n=30), and (c) apparently healthy residents of the endemic village (n= 30). A detailed questionnaire, designed to collect information on demographics, exposure to potentially toxic substances, diet, agricultural practices, and other factors potentially impacting endemic nephropathy was administered to the three study groups. The seeds of Aristolochia clematitis, obtained from plants growing in the endemic region, were extracted with ethanol and analyzed by high-performance liquid chromatography for their aristolochic acid content.
Results: The majority of subjects, including 90% of endemic nephropathy patients, recall that the plant Aristolochia clematitis (birthwort, vucja stopa in Croatian) was frequently found in local meadows and wheat fields between 20 and 30 years ago. At that time, endemic nephropathy patients encountered Aristolochia clematitis significantly more frequently than controls (P=0.035). Since then, all three study groups reported a significant increase in the use of herbicides (P<0.001) and reduction in the prevalence of Aristolochia clematitis (P<0.001). Chemical analysis established that the seeds of A. clematitis contain 0.65% aristolochic acid. It is likely that the harvesting process used by local farmers permitted the seeds of A. clematitis to mingle with the wheat grain.
Conclusion: Flour used to bake bread, a dietary staple in the endemic region of Croatia, is derived from wheat grain which, in the past, is likely to have been contaminated with seeds of A. clematitis during harvesting. This observation supports the hypothesis that aristolochic acid, a major constituent of the seeds, plays a central role in the development of endemic nephropathy.