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FASEB J. 2010 Dec;24(12):4722-32. doi: 10.1096/fj.10-163311. Epub 2010 Aug 9.

Flavokawain B, the hepatotoxic constituent from kava root, induces GSH-sensitive oxidative stress through modulation of IKK/NF-kappaB and MAPK signaling pathways.

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Division of Oncology, Washington University, School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO, USA.


Kava (Piper methysticum Foster, Piperaceae) organic solvent-extract has been used to treat mild to moderate anxiety, insomnia, and muscle fatigue in Western countries, leading to its emergence as one of the 10 best-selling herbal preparations. However, several reports of severe hepatotoxicity in kava consumers led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and authorities in Europe to restrict sales of kava-containing products. Herein we demonstrate that flavokawain B (FKB), a chalcone from kava root, is a potent hepatocellular toxin, inducing cell death in HepG2 (LD(50)=15.3 ± 0.2 μM) and L-02 (LD(50)=32 μM) cells. Hepatocellular toxicity of FKB is mediated by induction of oxidative stress, depletion of reduced glutathione (GSH), inhibition of IKK activity leading to NF-κB transcriptional blockade, and constitutive TNF-α-independent activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathways, namely, ERK, p38, and JNK. We further demonstrate by noninvasive bioluminescence imaging that oral consumption of FKB leads to inhibition of hepatic NF-κB transcriptional activity in vivo and severe liver damage. Surprisingly, replenishment with exogenous GSH normalizes both TNF-α-dependent NF-κB as well as MAPK signaling and rescues hepatocytes from FKB-induced death. Our data identify FKB as a potent GSH-sensitive hepatotoxin, levels of which should be specifically monitored and controlled in kava-containing herb products.

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