© 2022 90.5 WESA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science & Tech

Broccoli Extract May Prevent Throat And Neck Cancer Recurrences

Throat cancer survivor Larry VanDyke drinks kale protein every day. He's been in recovery since August of 2014 when he endured seven weeks of radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy.

“It’s one thing to fight the disease," he said. "It’s another thing to fight the side effects of the treatment and rebuild our bodies.”

For people like VanDyke, 65, kale isn’t just a trendy additive, it’s a potential lifesaver.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute, a molecular compound found in kale and its relative, broccoli, may prevent the recurrence of throat and neck cancers.

Pitt medical professor Daniel Johnson said 50 percent of the roughly 50,000 Americans diagnosed with head and neck cancers each year will develop a second malignant tumor within five years of initial recovery.

Those recurrences often stem from inevitable exposure to environmental triggers like pollution, according to Pitt associate professor Dr. Julie Bauman. They're also responsible for most mortalities.

Bauman partnered with Johnson in a study of green chemoprevention, which is a 40-year-old field focused on how plants and their extracts, rather than expensive drugs, can prevent cancers. They wanted to find an accessible prevention method which recovering patients could administer for a sustained period of time without harsh side effects.

“At the heart of our research … (is) the process of identifying and developing simple plants or their extracts,” she said. “It’s much more facile and less expensive than an isolated patented pharmaceutical.”

She and Johnson exposed cells to sulforaphane, a molecular compound found in certain vegetables known as cruciferous plants. They proved that the sulforaphane extracted from broccoli raises specific protein levels in the body which turn on genes able to defend cells against carcinogens.

“The first step was to ask if this chemical could upregulate certain pathways in cells that are helpful for the detoxification of environmental chemicals … The next step was to ask if this could work in a live model,” Bauman said.

Johnson then treated cancerous mice with sulforaphane. They found it to be highly protective against oral cancers.

Bauman said the next step is to ask, “Can we not upregulate those pathways in the cells of the mouths of healthy volunteers?”

Results were positive. Like those of the cancerous mice, cancer-free human cells demonstrated heightened protein levels capable of preventing tumors after sulforaphane treatment.

“It’s important to understand we have shown that this compound sulforaphane activates the same biochemical pathways in mice and humans,” Johnson said. “Our next step in humans is to determine if it actually does prevent the development of tumors. And that will be an exciting new clinical trial.”

Credit Holly Boykin/Head and Neck Cancer Alliance
Today, more young people than ever have been diagnosed with head and neck cancers, according to Holly Boykin of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance.

Bauman said that before broccoli can be called the cure for cancer, its effects in actual throat and neck cancer survivors need to be analyzed, especially in humans.

VanDyke said he’s interested in anything that could help him avoid a second round of chemo treatment and recovery. 

“One thing I know for myself and other survivors is that we are survivors,” VanDyke said. “We will fight for our health and for our wellness and for our healing.”

Eating broccoli is difficult for VanDyke, a Florida native, whose throat is scarred from radiation treatments. He said he would take advantage of this study if he were able to administer the vegetable in liquid form.

Executive Director of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance Holly Boykin said most survivors lack the ability to swallow or produce saliva, two factors which make consuming solids, or pills, practically impossible.

“Head and neck cancer affects a very vulnerable important part of the human body, that’s all the functions that are uniquely human like facial expression, voice, eating, breathing,” Bauman said.

For now, researchers are focused on creating a pill with the sulforaphane from broccoli that has been extracted, purified and concentrated. The creation of a potential liquid supplement presents another study which would focus on stabilizing the compound in another form.

Boykin said patients should apply this new scientific information to their specific medical history and talk to their doctors.

“I’m a true believer. If you have a question…you should take that information and go review it,” she said.

The takeaway? Broccoli might help, but it's not a proven treatment, Bauman said.

“(Our conclusions) hope to take advantage of that without turning plants into drugs, but rather take advantage of what we know about the beneficial effects of plants and use this in service of protecting the population against cancer,” she said.

The challenge with studying broccoli extracts, according to Bauman, is that they’re difficult to manufacture in a way that there’s assurance of measured and stable quantities of sulforaphane. Otherwise, results are not reliable.

She said that a dietary supplement strategy may be the most effective prevention method, especially worldwide.  

“Green chemoprevention is not only responsible and responsive to suffering patients but also responsible at the global level because green chemoprevention can be disseminated,” she said. “It’s accessible across the globe if we can demonstrate the principles of prevention based around a whole plant or its simple extract.”

If human trials were to prove successful at prevention, the supplement could change the lives of survivors whose cultural or environmental exposure makes recurrence likely.

Survivors like VanDyke, who fears signs of recurrence at every check-up or small pain.

“That does scare me. I still have my port in my chest in the event that I need it again, and there’s that unknown,” he said. “I take each day at a time. I don’t take anything for granted.”