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Watercress may help starve breast cancer

SOUTHAMPTON (UK)—A plant compound in watercress may have the ability to suppress breast cancer cell development by “turning off” a signal in the body, thereby starving a growing tumor of essential blood and oxygen.

The research, published in the British Journal of Nutrition and in Biochemical Pharmacology, shows that the watercress compound is able to interfere with the function of a protein that plays a critical role in cancer development.

As tumors develop they rapidly outgrow their existing blood supply. So they send out signals which make surrounding normal tissues grow new blood vessels into the tumor which feed them oxygen and nutrients.

The plant compound—called phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC)—found in watercress appears to block this process by interfering with and turning off the function of a protein called Hypoxia Inducible Factor (HIF) via a second protein.

“The 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,” says lead researcher Graham Packham, a molecular oncologist at the University of Southampton.

“Knowing the risk factors for cancer is a key goal and studies on diet are an important part of this. However, relatively little work is being performed in the U.K. on the links between the foods we eat and cancer development.”

Packham and colleagues performed a pilot study in which a small group of breast cancer survivors, underwent a period of fasting before eating 80g of watercress (a cereal bowl full) and then providing a series of blood samples over the next 24 hours.

The research team was able to detect significant levels of the plant compound PEITC in the blood of the participants following the watercress meal, and most importantly, could show that the function of the protein HIF was also measurably affected in the blood cells of the women.

The work was funded by the Watercress Alliance.

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