Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 11/1/2014 4:07:19 AM CST

Top Stories

Courtesy: Biswal Laboratory

A white blood cell under 40x magnification treated with the compound sulforaphane.

Eating broccoli is good for your lungs (and the rest of your body)

by Anna Gaynor
April 13, 2011

Think twice before skipping broccoli at the dinner table, if you are living with COPD.

According to a new study in Science Translational Medicine, a compound found in the vegetable may help those prone to severe lung infections to prevent and reduce them.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affects the lungs. Blockage in the airways creates difficulty breathing, and infections can aggravate the problem.

The compound sulforaphane activates a protein found in white blood cells in the lungs, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“They’re generally regarded as a front line of immune defense,” said Chris Harvey, a graduate student working on the study. “If you have a bacterial or viral infection, those are the cells that are first activated to fight off the infection.”

In a normal person, these cells are responsible for breaking down harmful materials such as bacteria and other unwanted debris. However in those with COPD, these white blood cells are unable to clear out infections that cause illness.

The researchers discovered a transcription factor inside the white blood cells called Nrf2, “which promises to restore the function of lung macrophages and help in increasing lung innate immune defenses in COPD patients,” Shyam Biswal, Hopkins researchers and study co-author, said in an email.

“A transcription factor, in its most generic term, is a protein that regulates the expression of many different needs in the body,” Harvey said. “And Nrf2, classically, is a transcription factor that is associated with antioxidants.”

The researchers found that the Nrf2 allows the white blood cells to function at a higher level.
“More recently data has been showing that it does a lot more than just antioxidant function,” he added. “That’s part of what are paper’s doing.”

Other researchers and the ones involved with the study noticed a decline in Nrf2 in the lungs and white blood cells of people with COPD.

According Harvey, the researchers isolated two common infections found in those with COPD. Mice were infected with the strains, and they monitored the effect of the compound sulforaphane.

The sulforaphane jumpstarts a chain reaction that already exists inside the human body. In simple terms, the sulforaphane activates the Nrf2, which in turn triggers a process within the cell that enhances its bacteria-fighting capabilities.

Eileen Lowery, manager of the Lung Health Initiatives at the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, warns that the study is still in the research phase, and it may be years before the Food and Drug Administration approves the compound.

“The information looks really promising, but it looks like we need more research,” she said.

Lowery added that COPD is often under-researched and underfunded even though it is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Dietician Melinda Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association, also found the findings exciting.

“It just gives you one more reason to eat your veggies,” she said.

Other cruciferous vegetables contain the compound, but broccoli sprouts were found to contain the highest amounts according to the study.

Johnson has heard of other compounds found in plants that have been used to help prevent diseases, such as slowing prostate cancer with lycopene from tomatoes.

“We know that they’re in there, and we know that there are more we haven’t named,” she said.