By Dr. Martin Smith

Your Mom would be very happy.  Cancer researchers have published studies showing that eating vegetables like broccoli may lower the risk for developing some cancers (1). Taking this idea one step further, researchers want to know if we can extract a key compound from vegetables and put it into pill form.  But, can a pill really replace eating your daily dose of broccoli?  These are the questions that cancer researchers are trying to answer right now.  A compound found in cruciferous vegetables called sulforaphane has been identified as a possible chemoprevention treatment against cancer.

Chemoprevention is not like standard chemotherapy.  This experimental treatment option is aimed at preventing the onset of cancer by providing a daily therapy to people who may be at higher risks of developing a disease.   Much like a vitamin, the power of chemoprevention is through ongoing treatment to lower the risks of getting cancer.  Potential chemoprevention drugs, like sulforaphane, are absorbed by the body and prevent the formation of cancer-causing agents in the body. They also increase the body’s machinery to clean up carcinogens out of the system before they damage cells.  We are still learning a lot about the possibility of using chemoprevention and researchers are conducting new studies to determine exactly what this means.

In one study, a protein called tubulin was identified as a target for chemoprevention treatment using sulforaphane (2).  Tubulin is the skeleton of your cells and when cancer grows it often takes advantage of changes in the shape of your cells. Researchers are hoping that sulforaphane prevents tubulin malfunction and restores healthy function.  In another example, studies suggest that sulforaphane, along with other dietary compounds, may prevent cancer by turning “on” or “off” a gene connected to both cell growth and clean up.  Giving prostate cancer cells sulforaphane led to slower cancer growth by turning off the genes (3).  As exciting as these studies are, they do not explain how sulforaphane can create longstanding effects on our body.  Understandably, scientists need to go deeper to understand the underlying causes before considering this as a mainstream therapy.

Since before Watson and Crick, we have known that all of the information needed to create life is found within our genes – our genetic code.  Unlocking our genetic code has helped us to understand what it means to be human.  Now researchers are starting to appreciate that in addition to our genetic code, there are important ways to regulate how we read the code. One such process of regulation is known as epigenetics and it is having a profound effect on how we treat cancer.  As researchers learn more about epigenetics they will undoubtedly identify other compounds like sulforaphane, that prevent cancer by changing how we read our DNA.

So what do we do while researchers figure out how to harness the potential of sulforaphane?

For now the answer is found in the advice you were probably given as a child.  Eat your broccoli!  Organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society have worked closely with dieticians to show the importance of a balanced diet. Including preventing cancer.  One diet plan can be found here:

This article was written by Dr. Martin Smith. Dr. Smith completed his PhD at the University of Waterloo studying how proteins can cause cancer. He currently works for the Ontario Brain Institute where he studies brain disease. To learn more about Dr. Smith and his research check out our members page.


(1) Dosz EB, Jeffery EH. Modifying the processing and handling of frozen broccoli for increased sulforaphane formation. J Food Sci., Volume 78(9), September 2013,  Pages 1459-63

(2) Xiao Z, Mi L, Chung FL, Veenstra TD. Proteomic analysis of covalent modifications of tubulins by isothiocyanates. J Nutr., Volume 142(7), July 2012,  Pages 1377-81.

(3) Beaver, LM., et al. Long noncoding RNAs and sulforaphane: a target for chemoprevention and suppression of prostate cancer. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, Volume 42, April 2017, Pages 72-83

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