Broccoli is frequently touted as a food that can help prevent cancer, but could it also be used to treat it?

According to research conducted by a faculty member at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) in Houston, the answer is yes.

IBT faculty member Roderick H. Dashwood, Ph.D., has been studying whether a compound known as sulforaphane, which occurs naturally in broccoli, could be used to treat advanced prostate cancer. In a paper that was recently published in the journal Oncogenesis, Dashwood and collaborators from Oregon State University detailed how a particular enzyme in prostate cancer cells known as SUV39H1 is affected by exposure to sulforaphane.

“There is significant evidence that cruciferous vegetables can help prevent cancer,” Dashwood said. “This study, however, is one of the first to show that by altering SUV39H1 and histone methylation profiles, sulforaphane could be a new therapeutic agent for advanced prostate cancer.” Histone methylation involves small chemical modifications to the proteins that interact with DNA, and influences how genes are expressed.broccoli and pills

Dashwood is a world-renowned expert in dietary cancer prevention and epigenetics, which is the study of how alterations in gene expression can be caused by mechanisms other than changes in the DNA sequence. He joined the health science center faculty in 2013 to head the IBT’s new Center for Epigenetics & Disease Prevention, which brings together researchers from throughout the Texas A&M System who are developing preventive treatments and pharmaceutical agents using beneficial compounds found naturally in food.

Dashwood and his colleagues at the center are exploring how to take the most beneficial parts of food and use them to reverse, halt or prevent diseases such as cancer – an initiative that Dashwood likes to refer to as “field-to-clinic.” In addition to patient care, the research has the potential to reduce health care costs and improve quality of life.

Prostate cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States, and is a leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide. While treatments such as surgical removal of the prostate, radiation therapy, hormone therapy and chemotherapy are initially effective in treating prostate cancer, the cancer frequently spreads to other sites. Once this occurs, survival rates decrease dramatically and treatment options are limited.

Dashwood says further work is needed to identify the particular subsets of advanced prostate cancers that would be susceptible to sulforaphane treatment. And more research needs to be done to verify the safety of the compound when used at higher doses.

A clinical trial is currently underway to test the effectiveness of sulforaphane-rich supplements in men with high risk for prostate cancer. Early indications are that the compound is safe. Results from this trial may help demonstrate the safety of higher-dosage supplements and set the stage for a therapeutic trial.

Dashwood’s research on sulforaphane is currently funded by an $8.5 million multi-investigator program project grant (P01) from the National Cancer Institute that focuses on comparative mechanisms of cancer chemoprevention.

— Ellen Davis

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