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BMC Bioinformatics. 2007 Nov 1;8 Suppl 7:S22.

Comparison of gene expression profiles altered by comfrey and riddelliine in rat liver.

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Division of Systems Toxicology, National Center for Toxicological Research, FDA, Jefferson, AR 72079, USA.



Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a perennial plant and has been consumed by humans as a vegetable, a tea and an herbal medicine for more than 2000 years. It, however, is hepatotoxic and carcinogenic in experimental animals and hepatotoxic in humans. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) exist in many plants and many of them cause liver toxicity and/or cancer in humans and experimental animals. In our previous study, we found that the mutagenicity of comfrey was associated with the PAs contained in the plant. Therefore, we suggest that carcinogenicity of comfrey result from those PAs. To confirm our hypothesis, we compared the expression of genes and processes of biological functions that were altered by comfrey (mixture of the plant with PAs) and riddelliine (a prototype of carcinogenic PA) in rat liver for carcinogenesis in this study.


Groups of 6 Big Blue Fisher 344 rats were treated with riddelliine at 1 mg/kg body weight by gavage five times a week for 12 weeks or fed a diet containing 8% comfrey root for 12 weeks. Animals were sacrificed one day after the last treatment and the livers were isolated for gene expression analysis. The gene expressions were investigated using Applied Biosystems Rat Whole Genome Survey Microarrays and the biological functions were analyzed with Ingenuity Analysis Pathway software. Although there were large differences between the significant genes and between the biological processes that were altered by comfrey and riddelliine, there were a number of common genes and function processes that were related to carcinogenesis. There was a strong correlation between the two treatments for fold-change alterations in expression of drug metabolizing and cancer-related genes.


Our results suggest that the carcinogenesis-related gene expression patterns resulting from the treatments of comfrey and riddelliine are very similar, and PAs contained in comfrey are the main active components responsible for carcinogenicity of the plant.

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