Almost from its discovery in 1879, the use of saccharin as an artificial, non-nutritive sweetener has been the center of several controversies regarding potential toxic effects, most recently focusing on the urinary bladder carcinogenicity of sodium saccharin in rats when fed at high doses in two-generation studies. No carcinogenic effect has been observed in mice, hamsters, or monkeys, and numerous epidemiological studies provide no clear or consistent evidence to support the assertion that sodium saccharin increases the risk of bladder cancer in the human population. Mechanism of action studies in the one susceptible species, the rat, continue to provide information useful in assessing potential risk to the human from saccharin consumption. Unlike typical carcinogens which interact with DNA, sodium saccharin is not genotoxic, but leads to an increase in cell proliferation of the urothelium, the only target tissue. It also appears that the effect of saccharin is modified by the salt form in which it is administered, despite equivalent concentrations of saccharin in the urine. The chemical form of saccharin in the urine is unaffected, and there is no evidence for a specific cell receptor for the saccharin molecule. Changes in several urinary parameters, such as pH, sodium, protein, silicates, volume, and others, appear to influence the reaction of the urothelium to sodium saccharin administration. Silicon-containing precipitate and/or crystals appear to be generated in the urine under specific circumstances, acting as microbrasive, cytotoxic material. Using a mathematical model of carcinogenesis, which encompasses the temporal dynamics and complexity of the process at a cellular level, including spontaneous genetic transitions, it has been shown that the effects of sodium saccharin can be explained entirely in terms of its non-genotoxic influence on cell proliferation. In interpreting these analytical studies in the human context, particularly as they pertain to the urinary milieu which appears to be pivotal in the effect of sodium saccharin, we are led to the conclusion that there is a threshold effect in male rats and that an effect on the human urothelium is unlikely at even the highest levels of human consumption.
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