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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.

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.