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Minerals are alchemically processed as Bhasmas in Ayurvedic medicines or as Zuotai in Tibetan medicines. Ayurveda is a knowledge system of longevity and considers the mineral elixir made from "nature" capable of giving humans perpetual life. Herbo-metallic preparations have a long history in the treatment of various diseases in India, China, and around the world. Their disposition, pharmacology, efficacy, and safety require scientific evaluation. This review discusses the Bhasmas in Ayurvedic medicines and Zuotai in Tibetan medicines for their occurrence, bioaccessibility, therapeutic use, pharmacology, toxicity, and research perspectives. A literature search on Mineral, Bhasma, Ayurvedic medicine, Zuotai, Tibetan medicine, and Metals/metalloids from PubMed, Google and other sources was carried out, and the relevant papers on their traditional use, pharmacology, and toxicity were selected and analyzed. Minerals are processed to form Bhasma or Zuotai to alter their physiochemical properties distinguishing them from environmental metals. The metals found in Ayurveda are mainly from the intentional addition in the form of Bhasma or Zuotai. Bhasma and Zuotai are often used in combination with other herbals and/or animal-based products as mixtures. The advanced technologies are now utilized to characterize herbo-metallic preparations as Quality Assurance/Quality Control. The bioaccessibility, absorption, distribution, metabolism, and elimination of herbo-metallic preparations are different from environmental metals. The pharmacological basis of Bhasma in Ayurveda and Zuotai in Tibetan medicines and their interactions with drugs require scientific research. Although the toxic potentials of Bhasma and Zuotai differ from environmental metals, the metal poisoning case reports, especially lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), and arsenic (As) from inappropriate use of traditional medicines, are increasing, and pharmacovigilance is desired. In risk assessment, chemical forms of metals in Bhasma and Zuotai should be considered for their disposition, efficacy, and toxicity.

This study examined developmental toxicity of different mercury compounds, including some used in traditional medicines. Medaka (Oryzias latipes) embryos were exposed to 0.001-10 µM concentrations of MeHg, HgCl2, α-HgS (Zhu Sha), and β-HgS (Zuotai) from stage 10 (6-7 hpf) to 10 days post fertilization (dpf). Of the forms of mercury in this study, the organic form (MeHg) proved the most toxic followed by inorganic mercury (HgCl2), both producing embryo developmental toxicity. Altered phenotypes included pericardial edema with elongated or tube heart, reduction of eye pigmentation, and failure of swim bladder inflation. Both α-HgS and β-HgS were less toxic than MeHg and HgCl2. Total RNA was extracted from survivors three days after exposure to MeHg (0.1 µM), HgCl2 (1 µM), α-HgS (10 µM), or β-HgS (10 µM) to examine toxicity-related gene expression. MeHg and HgCl2 markedly induced metallothionein (MT) and heme oxygenase-1 (Ho-1), while α-HgS and β-HgS failed to induce either gene. Chemical forms of mercury compounds proved to be a major determinant in their developmental toxicity.

Zuotai and cinnabar(96%HgS) are contained in many traditional medicines. To examine their potential effects on drug metabolism genes, mice were orally given Zuotai or HgS at doses of 10, 30, 100, 300 mg•kg⁻¹ for 7 days. HgCl2(33.6 mg•kg⁻¹) was gavaged for control. Twenty-four hour later after the last administration, livers were collected, and expressions of genes related to metabolic enzymes and transporters were examined. Zuotai and HgS had no effects on major phase-1, phase-2 and transporter genes; HgCl2 increased the expressions of CYP2B10, CYP4A10, OATP1A4, UGT1A1, UGT2A3, SULT1A1, SULT2A1, MRP1, MRP3 and MRP4; expression of OATP1A1 was decreased by HgCl2, but not by Zuotai and HgS. Therefore, Zuotai and HgS have different adverse effects on drug-metabolizing genes from HgCl2.

ETHNOPHARMOCOLOGICAL RELEVANCE: Herbo-metallic preparations have a long history in the treatment of diseases, and are still used today for refractory diseases, as adjuncts to standard therapy, or for economic reasons in developing countries.AIM OF THE REVIEW: This review uses cinnabar (HgS) and realgar (As4S4) as mineral examples to discuss their occurrence, therapeutic use, pharmacology, toxicity in traditional medicine mixtures, and research perspectives. MATERIALS AND METHODS: A literature search on cinnabar and realgar from PubMed, Chinese pharmacopeia, Google and other sources was carried out. Traditional medicines containing both cinnabar and realgar (An-Gong-Niu-Huang Wan, Hua-Feng-Dan); mainly cinnabar (Zhu-Sha-An-Shen Wan; Zuotai and Dangzuo), and mainly realgar (Huang-Dai Pian; Liu-Shen Wan; Niu-Huang-Jie-Du) are discussed. RESULTS: Both cinnabar and realgar used in traditional medicines are subjected to special preparation procedures to remove impurities. Metals in these traditional medicines are in the sulfide forms which are different from environmental mercurials (HgCl2, MeHg) or arsenicals (NaAsO2, NaH2AsO4). Cinnabar and/or realgar are seldom used alone, but rather as mixtures with herbs and/or animal products in traditional medicines. Advanced technologies are now used to characterize these preparations. The bioaccessibility, absorption, distribution, metabolism and elimination of these herbo-metallic preparations are different from environmental metals. The rationale of including metals in traditional remedies and their interactions with drugs need to be justified. At higher therapeutic doses, balance of the benefits and risks is critical. Surveillance of patients using these herbo-metallic preparations is desired. CONCLUSION: Chemical forms of mercury and arsenic are a major determinant of their disposition, efficacy and toxicity, and the use of total Hg and As alone for risk assessment of metals in traditional medicines is insufficient.

Zuotai is composed mainly of β-HgS, while cinnabar mainly contains α-HgS. Both forms of HgS are used in traditional medicines and their safety is of concern. This study aimed to compare the hepatotoxicity potential of Zuotai and α-HgS with mercury chloride (HgCl2) and methylmercury (MeHg) in mice. Mice were orally administrated with Zuotai (30 mg/kg), α-HgS (HgS, 30 mg/kg), HgCl2 (33.6 mg/kg), or CH3HgCl (3.1 mg/kg) for 7 days, and liver injury and gene expressions related to toxicity, inflammation and Nrf2 were examined. Animal body weights were decreased by HgCl2 and to a less extent by MeHg. HgCl2 and MeHg produced spotted hepatocyte swelling and inflammation, while such lesions are mild in Zuotai and HgS-treated mice. Liver Hg contents reached 45-70 ng/mg in HgCl2 and MeHg groups; but only 1-2 ng/mg in Zuotai and HgS groups. HgCl2 and MeHg increased the expression of liver injury biomarker genes metallothionein-1 (MT-1) and heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1); the inflammation biomarkers early growth response gene (Egr1), glutathione S-transferase (Gst-mu), chemokine (mKC) and microphage inflammatory protein (MIP-2), while these changes were insignificant in Zuotai and HgS groups. However, all mercury compounds were able to increase the Nrf2 pathway genesNAD(P)H: quinone oxidoreductase 1 (Nqo1) and Glutamate-cysteine ligase, catalytic subunit (Gclc). In conclusion, the Tibetan medicine Zuotai and HgS are less hepatotoxic than HgCl2 and MeHg, and differ from HgCl2 and MeHg in hepatic Hg accumulation and toxicological responses.

Background. The circadian clock is involved in drug metabolism, efficacy and toxicity. Drugs could in turn affect the biological clock as a mechanism of their actions. Zuotai is an essential component of many popular Tibetan medicines for sedation, tranquil and "detoxification," and is mainly composed of metacinnabar (β-HgS). The pharmacological and/or toxicological basis of its action is unknown. This study aimed to examine the effect of Zuotai on biological clock gene expression in the liver of mice. Materials and methods. Mice were orally given Zuotai (10 mg/kg, 1.5-fold of clinical dose) daily for 7 days, and livers were collected every 4 h during the 24 h period. Total RNA was extracted and subjected to real-time RT-PCR analysis of circadian clock gene expression. Results. Zuotai decreased the oscillation amplitude of the clock core gene Clock, neuronal PAS domain protein 2 (Npas2), Brain and muscle Arnt-like protein-1 (Bmal1) at 10:00. For the clock feedback negative control genes, Zuotai had no effect on the oscillation of the clock gene Cryptochrome (Cry1) and Period genes (Per1-3). For the clock-driven target genes, Zuotai increased the oscillation amplitude of the PAR-bZip family member D-box-binding protein (Dbp), decreased nuclear factor interleukin 3 (Nfil3) at 10:00, but had no effect on thyrotroph embryonic factor (Tef); Zuotai increased the expression of nuclear receptor Rev-Erbα (Nr1d1) at 18:00, but had little influence on the nuclear receptor Rev-Erbβ (Nr1d2) and RORα. Conclusion. The Tibetan medicine Zuotai could influence the expression of clock genes, which could contribute to pharmacological and/or toxicological effects of Zuotai.

Mercury sulfides are used in Ayurvedic medicines, Tibetan medicines, and Chinese medicines for thousands of years and are still used today. Cinnabar (α-HgS) and metacinnabar (β-HgS) are different from mercury chloride (HgCl2) and methylmercury (MeHg) in their disposition and toxicity. Whether such scenario applies to weanling and aged animals is not known. To address this question, weanling (21d) and aged (450d) rats were orally given Zuotai (54% β-HgS, 30mg/kg), HgS (α-HgS, 30mg/kg), HgCl2 (34.6mg/kg), or MeHg (MeHgCl, 3.2mg/kg) for 7days. Accumulation of Hg in kidney and liver, and the toxicity-sensitive gene expressions were examined. Animal body weight gain was decreased by HgCl2 and to a lesser extent by MeHg, but unaltered after Zuotai and HgS. HgCl2 and MeHg produced dramatic tissue Hg accumulation, increased kidney (kim-1 and Ngal) and liver (Ho-1) injury-sensitive gene expressions, but such changes are absent or mild after Zuotai and HgS. Aged rats were more susceptible than weanling rats to Hg toxicity. To examine roles of transporters in Hg accumulation, transporter gene expressions were examined. The expression of renal uptake transporters Oat1, Oct2, and Oatp4c1 and hepatic Oatp2 was decreased, while the expression of renal efflux transporter Mrp2, Mrp4 and Mdr1b was increased following HgCl2 and MeHg, but unaffected by Zuotai and HgS. Thus, Zuotai and HgS differ from HgCl2 and MeHg in producing tissue Hg accumulation and toxicity, and aged rats are more susceptible than weanling rats. Transporter expression could be adaptive means to reduce tissue Hg burden.