Great Explanations

By Mark Lorch

20 top scientists on the best things they ever learnt

Friday, 24 September 2021

Introducing the contributors - Dr Kat Arney

Kat is a science writer and broadcaster, with several popular science books (most recently Rebel Cell: Cancer,evolutionand the Science of Life) and BBC radio shows to her name. In short she just loves telling stories about science!

In Great Explanations Kat wants to tell you about a fascinating science themed detective story, here's a sneak preview...


In 1992, two women were admitted to Erasme Hospital in Brussels with severe kidney disease. Over a couple of months their problems got worse and their kidneys eventually failed, leaving the women with no option but to spend the rest of their lives on dialysis or wait for a transplant.  

Their doctors were baffled as to the cause, until they realised that both women had gone to the same slimming clinic a year before where they had been given Chinese herbal supplements. Added to the clinic’s weight loss regime in 1990, the supplements were labelled as containing Han Fang Ji and Hou Po, better known to horticulturalists as the leaves of Stephania tetranda – a woody vine native to China – and magnolia tree bark (Magnolia officinalis).  

Looking back over the records from dialysis units across Brussels, the Erasme doctors realised that another seven women had come in with kidney disease over the past couple of years. All had been to the same clinic and taken the same herbal supplements. By February 1993, a total of 48 women had been admitted to hospital with the same mysterious kidney disease and backstory.  

Attention quickly turned to discovering the identity of the culprit. Frustratingly, the capsules didn’t seem to be contaminated with chemicals that were known to damage the kidneys. They were also unadulterated by pharmaceutical drugs, which are sometimes illicitly slipped into herbal preparations. But something didn’t add up – none of the samples actually contained any tetrandine, the active ingredient in Stephania tetranda. So what was in there instead?

You'll need to back the book to read the rest of Kat's tale and find out how the story pans out.

You can find Kat on twitter where she goes by @Kat_Arney 

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