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Arch Toxicol. 2013 Mar;87(3):529-34. doi: 10.1007/s00204-012-0969-1. Epub 2012 Nov 6.

Induction of nuclear anomalies in exfoliated buccal cells of coca chewers: results of a field study.

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Department of Internal Medicine 1, Institute of Cancer Research, Medical University of Vienna, Borschkegasse 8A, 1090, Vienna, Austria.


The leaves of coca (Erythroxylum coca var. coca), a South American shrub which contains cocaine, other alkaloids and phenolics are widely used by indigenous populations of the Andes. It is currently not known if coca consumption causes genotoxic effects in humans. This information is important to predict potential long-term toxic effects such as cancer induction. Therefore, the buccal cytome assay was used to analyze oral cells from 45 uni- and bilateral chewers and 23 controls living in the Altiplano of the Peruvian Andes. In total, 123,471 cells were evaluated from chewers and 57,916 from controls. Information concerning the consumption levels and habits and also use of lime were collected with questionnaires. Chewing of the leaves did not induce nuclear anomalies reflecting genetic damage such as micronuclei (MNi) and nuclear buds; in the highest exposure group (but not in the overall group) even a significant decrease in the frequencies of cells with MNi (by 64 %) was observed. However, we found significantly elevated levels of other nuclear anomalies (karyorrhexis and karyolysis) which reflect cytotoxic effects in the coca users. The frequencies of these anomalies increased with the daily consumption and when lime was used to improve the release of the alkaloids. In contrast to other chewing habits (betel, tobacco and khat), consumption of coca leaves does not induce genetic instability in cells from the oral cavity and our findings indicate that no adverse health effects take place in chewers which are associated with DNA damage. However, the significant increase in certain anomalies shows that acute toxic effects are caused by coca consumption.

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