Assessment of herbal medicinal products: Challenges, and opportunities to increase the knowledge base for safety assessment

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Although herbal medicinal products (HMP) have been perceived by the public as relatively low risk, there has been more recognition of the potential risks associated with this type of product as the use of HMPs increases. Potential harm can occur via inherent toxicity of herbs, as well as from contamination, adulteration, plant misidentification, and interactions with other herbal products or pharmaceutical drugs. Regulatory safety assessment for HMPs relies on both the assessment of cases of adverse reactions and the review of published toxicity information. However, the conduct of such an integrated investigation has many challenges in terms of the quantity and quality of information. Adverse reactions are under-reported, product quality may be less than ideal, herbs have a complex composition and there is lack of information on the toxicity of medicinal herbs or their constituents. Nevertheless, opportunities exist to capitalise on newer information to increase the current body of scientific evidence. Novel sources of information are reviewed, such as the use of poison control data to augment adverse reaction information from national pharmacovigilance databases, and the use of more recent toxicological assessment techniques such as predictive toxicology and omics. The integration of all available information can reduce the uncertainty in decision making with respect to herbal medicinal products. The example of Aristolochia and aristolochic acids is used to highlight the challenges related to safety assessment, and the opportunities that exist to more accurately elucidate the toxicity of herbal medicines.

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