Planta Med 2014; 80 - LP69
DOI: 10.1055/s-0034-1395106

Black cohosh: Insights into adulteration and hepatotoxicity

S Williams 1, C Howard 1, J Dixon 1, R Middleton 2, A Slater 1, E Koch 3
  • 1Biomolecular Technology Group, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, De Montfort University, Leicester, LE1 9BH, United Kingdom
  • 2Schwabe Pharma UK Ltd, Buckinghamshire, SL7 1PD, United Kingdom
  • 3Dr Willmar Schwabe GmbH & Co. KG, Karlsruhe, 76227, Germany

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa L. syn. Cimicifuga racemosa Nutt.), BC, is used to relieve symptoms of the menopause. Its use is popular worldwide, with US sales totalling over 17 million dollars. Reports of isolated incidents of liver damage linked to the use of black cohosh have damaged its credibility, although subsequent reviews have been unable to find confirmation that BC was responsible. The suspicion has arisen that some of these adverse reactions may have been caused by adulteration/substitution with Asian species of Actaea [1]. This demonstrates that correct identification of A. racemosa in BC products is crucial, and highlights a need to investigate the potential hepatotoxicity of Actaea species. To approach the issue of adulteration, qPCR based identification assays have been developed. These assays are capable of distinguishing A. racemosa from other Actaea species by the use of specific primers, designed to generate products of different sizes per species [2]. The addition of generic primers gives a relative ratio of the amount of A. racemosa present in a sample compared to the overall amount of other Actaea species. Investigation into possible hepatotoxicity was carried out using qPCR based gene expression array technology. Cultured HepaRG cells were treated with extracts of A. racemosa, A. cimicifuga and A. dahurica, and the expression of 84 hepatotoxity associated genes was analysed. Preliminary results indicate that BC extract affects the expression of a different subset of genes from the two other species, and only at a higher concentration.

Keywords: Actaea, Black cohosh, Hepatotoxicity, menopause, Adulteration, PCR,


[1] Jordan, S. A., Cunningham, D. G. & Marles, R. J. (2010) Assessment of herbal medicinal products: Challenges, and opportunities to increase the knowledge base for safety assessment. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 243, 198 – 216.

[2] Howard, C. et al. (2012) PlantID – DNA-based identification of multiple medicinal plants in complex mixtures. Chinese Medicine, 7: 18.