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Broccoli Fights Cancer by Clearing Bad Tumor Suppressors

Cruciferous vegetables contain compounds that preferentially destroy ineffective mutant p53 tumor suppressor proteins, but leave the good ones alone. Steve Mirsky reports

Generations of American children have been told, “Eat your broccoli!” And for decades, researchers have known that broccoli and related vegetables like cauliflower and watercress appeared to lower the risk of some cancers. And that compounds in the vegetables could kill cancer cells. But how the cruciferous veggies worked their medical magic was a mystery. Until now. Because researchers have figured out just what broccoli does that helps keep cancer in check. The work appears in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. [Xiantao Wang et al., "Selective Depletion of Mutant p53 by Cancer Chemoprevention Isothiocyanates and Their Structure-Activity Relationships"]

Proteins coded by the gene p53 help keep cancer from starting to grow. But when the p53 gene is mutated, the protection is gone. Mutated p53 is implicated in about half of all human cancers.

Broccoli and its relatives are rich in compounds called isothiocyanates, or ITCs. And these ITCs apparently destroy the products of the mutant p53 gene, but leave the healthy p53 proteins alone and free to suppress tumor development.

The researchers write that “depletion of mutant p53 may reduce drug resistance and lead to new strategies for treating cancer in the clinic.” In the meantime, eat your broccoli!

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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