October 13, 2010
As a cancerous tumor develops, it quickly outgrows its existing blood supply. So a protein called Hypoxia Inducible Factor (HIF) is released that sends out signals causing surrounding normal tissues to grow new blood vessels into the tumor – and that provides the cancer with oxygen and nutrients. This plays a critical role in the development and spread of breast and other cancers. But now comes word from University of Southampton researchers in the United Kingdom that they've discovered something which interferes with and actually "turns off" the ability of HIF to function – a natural plant compound dubbed phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) found in the herb watercress.
"This research takes an important step towards understanding the potential health benefits of this crop since it shows that eating watercress may interfere with a pathway that has already been tightly linked to cancer development," molecular oncologist Professor Packham, who headed the two year study, said in a statement to the media. "Knowing the risk factors for cancer is a key goal and studies on diet are an important part of this."
Working with Barbara Parry, Senior Research Dietician at the Winchester and Andover Breast Unit, Professor Packham performed a study involving a group of breast cancer survivors who underwent a period of fasting. Then the research subjects ate 80g of watercress (about the equivalent of a cereal bowl full of the herb). Next, a series of blood samples were taken over the next 24 hours.
The blood tests revealed significant levels of the plant compound PEITC in the blood of the participants following the watercress meal. But, most importantly, the tests showed that the function of the protein HIF was also measurably affected and "turned off" in the blood cells of the women who had eaten the watercress. The results of this research, which were just published in the British Journal of Nutrition and Biochemical Pharmacology, provide new insight and hope that simply eating watercress regularly may protect against and perhaps help treat cancer.
"This is not a cure for cancer but it may well help to prevent the disease," said Professor Packham. "We carried out this study with a handful of breast cancer survivors but it has the potential to have the same effect with other cancers too."