Aristolochic acids and their derivatives are widely implicated in liver cancers in Taiwan and throughout Asia
Many traditional pharmacopeias include Aristolochia and related plants, which contain nephrotoxins and mutagens in the form of aristolochic acids and similar compounds (collectively, AA). AA is implicated in multiple cancer types, sometimes with very high mutational burdens, especially in upper tract urothelial cancers (UTUCs). AA-associated kidney failure and UTUCs are prevalent in Taiwan, but AA’s role in hepatocellular carcinomas (HCCs) there remains unexplored. Therefore, we sequenced the whole exomes of 98 HCCs from two hospitals in Taiwan and found that 78% showed the distinctive mutational signature of AA exposure, accounting for most of the nonsilent mutations in known cancer driver genes. We then searched for the AA signature in 1400 HCCs from diverse geographic regions. Consistent with exposure through known herbal medicines, 47% of Chinese HCCs showed the signature, albeit with lower mutation loads than in Taiwan. In addition, 29% of HCCs from Southeast Asia showed the signature. The AA signature was also detected in 13 and 2.7% of HCCs from Korea and Japan as well as in 4.8 and 1.7% of HCCs from North America and Europe, respectively, excluding one U.S. hospital where 22% of 87 “Asian” HCCs had the signature. Thus, AA exposure is geographically widespread. Asia, especially Taiwan, appears to be much more extensively affected, which is consistent with other evidence of patterns of AA exposure. We propose that additional measures aimed at primary prevention through avoidance of AA exposure and investigation of possible approaches to secondary prevention are warranted.