Herbalife hepatotoxicity: Evaluation of cases with positive reexposure tests

World J Hepatol. 2013 Jul 27;5(7):353-63. doi: 10.4254/wjh.v5.i7.353.


Aim: To analyze the validity of applied test criteria and causality assessment methods in assumed Herbalife hepatotoxicity with positive reexposure tests.

Methods: We searched the Medline database for suspected cases of Herbalife hepatotoxicity and retrieved 53 cases including eight cases with a positive unintentional reexposure and a high causality level for Herbalife. First, analysis of these eight cases focused on the data quality of the positive reexposure cases, requiring a baseline value of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) < 5 upper limit of normal (N) before reexposure, with N as the upper limit of normal, and a doubling of the ALT value at reexposure as compared to the ALT value at baseline prior to reexposure. Second, reported methods to assess causality in the eight cases were evaluated, and then the liver specific Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) scale validated for hepatotoxicity cases was used for quantitative causality reevaluation. This scale consists of various specific elements with scores provided through the respective case data, and the sum of the scores yields a causality grading for each individual case of initially suspected hepatotoxicity.

Results: Details of positive reexposure test conditions and their individual results were scattered in virtually all cases, since reexposures were unintentional and allowed only retrospective rather than prospective assessments. In 1/8 cases, criteria for a positive reexposure were fulfilled, whereas in the remaining cases the reexposure test was classified as negative (n = 1), or the data were considered as uninterpretable due to missing information to comply adequately with the criteria (n = 6). In virtually all assessed cases, liver unspecific causality assessment methods were applied rather than a liver specific method such as the CIOMS scale. Using this scale, causality gradings for Herbalife in these eight cases were probable (n = 1), unlikely (n = 4), and excluded (n = 3). Confounding variables included low data quality, alternative diagnoses, poor exclusion of important other causes, and comedication by drugs and herbs in 6/8 cases. More specifically, problems were evident in some cases regarding temporal association, daily doses, exact start and end dates of product use, actual data of laboratory parameters such as ALT, and exact dechallenge characteristics. Shortcomings included scattered exclusion of hepatitis A-C, cytomegalovirus and Epstein Barr virus infection with only globally presented or lacking parameters. Hepatitis E virus infection was considered in one single patient and found positive, infections by herpes simplex virus and varicella zoster virus were excluded in none.

Conclusion: Only one case fulfilled positive reexposure test criteria in initially assumed Herbalife hepatotoxicity, with lower CIOMS based causality gradings for the other cases than hitherto proposed.

Keywords: Herb induced liver injury; Herbal hepatotoxicity; Herbalife hepatotoxicity; Herbalife induced liver injury; Herbs.