“It’s just genetics.”
Under certain circumstances, those three words are among the most disheartening in the English language. Why? Because genetics place certain people at a higher risk of serious health issues. That sucks because everyone likes to feel in control of their own health and their own bodies. Simply resigning yourself to the hand life dealt you can make you feel helpless. But what if I told you that you could actually influence those “bad-hand” genetics and make them much less risky? It sounds incredible, but a new study has discovered a connection between a compound in a popular vegetable and a genetic material that plays a major role in the development and spread of cancer.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, found that sulforaphane—a compound abundant in broccoli—can help regulate long non-coding RNAs and, in turn, reduce the risk of prostrate cancer.
How exactly does it do this?
Let’s start with the concept of gene expression. Each cell contains thousands of genes, but only a fraction of them are turned on at a time. When a gene is turned on, or “expressed,” it can change the look and function of a cell. The National Institutes of Health explains: “Genes are turned on and off in different patterns during development to make a brain cell look and act different from a liver cell or a muscle cell, for example. Gene regulation also allows cells to react quickly to changes in their environments.”
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Historically, long non-coding RNAS (lncRNAS) were thought to be “junk DNA,” having little importance in human development. However, researchers now know that lncRNAs can regulate gene expression—they can turn certain genes on or off, thereby turning their functions on or off. But when these lncRNAs are dysregulated, they can be used to spread multiple disease processes, including cancer. LncRNAs are also cell- and tissue-specific, which interests researchers. “Unlike many chemotherapeutic drugs that affect healthy cells as well as malignant ones that cause undesired side effects, the control of lncRNAs may offer a new way to specifically prevent or slow the progression of malignant cells,” ScienceDaily.com writes.
So, how can we control lncRNAs? According to the new study, compounds such as sulforaphane in natural foods could be a legitimate answer. Researchers at Oregon State University found that levels of one particular lncRNA, named LINC01116, were abnormally high in a human cell line of prostate cancer. But once treated with sulforaphane, the levels of LINC01116 were greatly reduced. In turn, researchers identified a “four-fold decrease in the ability of prostate cancer cells to form colonies when LINC0116 was disrupted.” That’s an astounding result for a compound that’s abundant in a popular food like broccoli.
“This could be a turning point in our understanding of how cancer may be triggered and spreads,” Emily Ho, the endowed director of the Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, Nutrition and Preventive Health at OSU, professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute, said in a press release. “It’s obviously of interest that this dietary compound, found at some of its highest levels in broccoli, can affect lncRNAs. This could open the door to a whole range of new dietary strategies, foods or drugs that might play a role in cancer suppression or therapeutic control.”
Except for skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men. This year, roughly 27,000 people are expected to die from prostate cancer inside the United States. LINC0116 has also been found to be over-expressed in several other types of cancer, including brain, lung and colon. Different lncRNAs have been found at higher levels in breast, lung, stomach and prostate cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
“This may relate to more than just cancer prevention. It would be of significant value if we could develop methods to greatly slow the progress of cancer, help keep it from becoming invasive,” says Laura Beaver, a research associate in the Linus Pauling Institute and College of Public Health and Human Sciences and lead author of the study.
Although we cannot equate the amount of sulforaphane used in this study to an amount in a serving of broccoli (since the research was done at a cellular level), researchers seem confident that the findings can help us better formulate dietary strategies to combat certain diseases. “Our data reveal that chemicals from the diet can influence the expression of functionally important lncRNAs,” the researchers write.
The key to turning your genetics in your favor? It might just be piling the right type of natural foods on your plate.
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