There may soon be yet another reason to eat plenty of vegetables. According to a report published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a compound found in broccoli can kill the bacterium responsible for the majority of ulcers and stomach cancers. If food sources of the substance prove to be similarly successful, they could lead to new forms of treatment for a bacterial infection that affects large numbers of people in developing countries.

The culprit bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, succumbs to powerful antibiotic treatment in more than 80 percent of cases. But in regions of Central and South America, Africa and Asia, where as much as 80 percent of the population is infected as a result of poor sanitation conditions, administering the required medication has proved difficult. After hearing of people suffering from ulcers who experienced relief of their symptoms after consuming three-day-old broccoli sprouts, Jed W. Fahey of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his colleagues began investigating the plants. Specifically, they isolated a compound from broccoli seeds known as sulforaphane and tested its effects on H. pylori. They found that purified sulforaphane killed 48 different strains of H. pylori, including ones resistant to commonly used antibiotics. Moreover, the compound destroyed the bacterium both inside and outside of cells.

Further research is needed to determine if dietary sources of sulforaphane will be as adept as pure sulforaphane at eliminating H. pylori. "If future clinical studies show that a food can relieve or prevent diseases associated with this bacterium in people," Fahey notes, "it could have significant public health implications in the U.S. and around the world."