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Published On: Wed, Oct 26th, 2011

Sulforaphane and Breast Cancer


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-by Kean Ashurst, M.S.

Introduction

Cruciferous vegetables, (i.e., broccoli), are rich sources of sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolatesIsothiocyanates  are biologically active hydrolysis (breakdown) products of glucosinolates. Cruciferous vegetables contain a variety of glucosinolates, each of which forms a different isothiocyanate when it is broken down/hydrolyzed.  For example, broccoli is a good source of Glucoraphanin, the glucosinolate precursor of Sulforaphane .  Scientists are interested in the cancer-preventive activities of vegetables that are rich in glucosinolates, especially those of sulforaphane.  There are 12  clinical trials in progress at the NIH, (National Institute of Health), and these involve the study of  prostate cancer, cardiovascular diseases, skin diseases, and most important for this month’s topic; breast cancer.

Metabolism and Bioavailability

Myrosinase, an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of glucosinolates, is physically separated from glucosinolates in intact plant cells. When cruciferous vegetables are chopped or chewed,  myrosinase interacts with glucosinolate and releases these  isothiocyanates. Thorough chewing of raw, cruciferous vegetables increases glucosinolate contact with myrosinase and increases the absorbance of  isothiocyanates.  Even when plant myrosinase is completely inactivated by heat, the myrosinase activity of human intestinal bacteria allows for some formation/absorption of isothiocyanates.  However, absorption and excretion of isothiocyanates is substantially lower from cooked than from raw cruciferous vegetables. This action is especially important in the chemistry and incorporation of sulforaphane.  During metabolism, these isothiocyanates are bound to glutathione, an activity that is promoted by a family of enzymes called glutathione-S-transferases (GSTs). These isothiocyanate metabolites can be measured in the urine and are highly correlated with dietary intake of cruciferous vegetables. 

                                                                                       -from, BioCyc. Org. Database

Biological Activities:  Biotransformation enzymes play important roles in the metabolism/elimination of a variety of chemicals, including drugs, toxins, and carcinogens.  In general, Phase I biotransformation enzymes catalyze reactions that increase the reactivity of hydrophobic (fat-soluble) compounds, preparing them for reactions catalyzed by Phase II biotransformation enzymes.  Reactions catalyzed by Phase II enzymes generally increase water solubility and promote the elimination of the compound from the body. 

Some procarcinogens, (i.e., carcinogen precursors), require biotransformation by Phase I enzymes, (i.e., Cytochrome P450 (CYP) family), in order to activate carcinogens that are capable of binding DNA and inducing mutations. Inhibition of specific CYP enzymes involved in carcinogen activation inhibits the development of cancer in animal models. Isothiocyanates, including PEITC and BITC, have been found to inhibit carcinogen activation by CYP enzymes in animal studies. Cell culture studies have also shown that SFN inhibits certain CYP enzymes. 

Many isothiocyanates, particularly sulforaphane, are potent inducers of Phase II enzymes in cultured human cells. Phase II enzymes, including GSTs, play important roles in protecting cells from DNA damage by carcinogens and reactive oxygen species (ROS). The genes for these and other Phase II enzymes contain a specific sequence of DNA called an Antioxidant Response Element (“ARE”).  Sulforaphane has been shown to increase Phase II enzyme activity by increasing the transcription of genes that contain an “ARE”. Limited data from clinical trials suggests that glucosinolate-rich foods can increase Phase II enzyme activity in humans. 

After a cell divides, it passes through a sequence of stages, known as the cell cycle,  before dividing again. Following DNA damage, the cell cycle can be transiently arrested to allow for DNA repair, or, if the damage cannot be repaired, activation of pathways leading to cell death.  Defective cell cycle regulation may result in the propagation of mutations that contribute to the development of cancer

Unlike normal cells, cancer cells proliferate rapidly and lose the ability to respond to cell death signals that initiate apoptosis, (cell suicide/programmed death), and they increase inflammation at the “recognized” site.  Research has shown that isothiocyanates, especially sulforaphane,  inhibit cellular proliferation and induce apoptosis in a number of cancer cell lines.

 Anti-inflammatory Activity: Inflammation promotes cellular proliferation and inhibits apoptosis; this increases the risk of cancer  development. Sulforaphane has been found to decrease the secretion of inflammatory signaling molecules by white blood cells; these compounds also have been shown to decrease DNA binding of NF-kappaB, a pro-inflammatory transcription factor.

Antibacterial Activity:  Sulforaphane also exhibits broad spectrum antimicrobial activity, inhibiting the growth of several gram positive and negative bacteria including E.Coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. This antimicrobial activity in combination with its anti-inflammatory activity suggests that Sulforaphane may have very positive affects as a topical cosmetic.

Disease Prevention: Naturally occurring isothiocyanates from cruciferous vegetables, their metabolites, and especially sulforaphane,  have been found to inhibit the development of chemically-induced cancers of the lung, liver, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, and most importantly, mammary gland (breast) tissue/cells in a variety of animal models. (Recent clinical studies have unveiled many other benefits of broccoli seed and sprout extracts that contain  Sulforaphane.) 

          Summary—how does all of this affect us?!

  • Isothiocyanates are derived from the hydrolysis (breakdown) of glucosinolates—sulfur-containing compounds found in cruciferous vegetables. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables contain a variety of glucosinolates, each of which forms a different isothiocyanate when hydrolyzed. 
  • Isothiocyanates, such as Sulforaphane, may help prevent cancer by promoting the elimination of potential carcinogens from the body and by enhancing the transcription of tumor suppressor proteins. 
  • Epidemiological studies provide some evidence that human exposure to isothiocyanates through cruciferous vegetable consumption may decrease cancer risk, but the protective effects may be influenced by individual genetic variation in the metabolism and elimination of isothiocyanates from the body. 
  • Glucosinolates such as sulforaphane, are present in relatively high concentrations in cruciferous vegetables, but cooking, particularly boiling and microwaving at high power, may decrease the bioavailability of isothiocyanates. 
  • Sulforaphane is being evaluated in a number of clinical trials for its potential to mitigate the manifestations of chronic disease related to free radicals, electrophiles, inflammation, ultraviolet radiation and cardiovascular sheer stress. This is of vital importance when trying to prevent breast cancer and/or fighting it off!

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