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Originally published December 7 2009

An antioxidant in broccoli and cauliflower may treat cystic fibrosis and other diseases

by S. L. Baker, features writer

(NaturalNews) In addition to the suffering and death they cause, cystic fibrosis (CF), diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegeneration (any disease process that involves the death of brain cells) have something else in common: scientists believe they are inflammation-based disorders. Now comes word that researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have discovered that a natural antioxidant, thiocyanate, found in certain vegetables including broccoli and cauliflower, might treat and even prevent these chronic health problems. Bottom line: it appears thiocyanate protects cells from damage generated during the body's inflammatory response to infection and injury.

In a study published in the November edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a University of Pennsylvania research team headed by physiology professor Zhe Lu, MD, PhD, used cell culture studies and a synthesis of known antioxidant biochemistry to show that thiocyanate protects cells against potentially harmful chemicals -- hydrogen peroxide and hypochlorite (the active ingredient found in household bleach) -- produced internally when the body is injured or fighting an infection. Moreover, they found that thiocyanate specifically protects cells from hypochlorite damage when that chemical is produced in immune system reactions involving an enzyme dubbed myeloperoxidase (MPO).

The researchers pointed out that thiocyanate is obtained naturally through a diet containing cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. Blood levels of thiocyanate in the general population have been found to vary greatly, from 10 to 140 micromolars. So what happens if people don't take in enough thiocyanate through their diets? In their paper, Dr. Lu and colleagues speculate that a lack of the antioxidant causes additional collateral damage to cells during times of inflammation. That could worsen inflammatory diseases and predispose humans to diseases linked to MPO activity, including atherosclerosis and diabetes.

For example, type 2 diabetes is associated with elevated blood levels of MPO and the University of Pennsylvania researchers noted that MPO-induced injuries to pancreas cells and endothelial cells used in their experiments were greatly reduced by adding relatively small amounts of thiocyanate. This finding raises the possibility that MPO contributes to diabetes if there is not an adequate amount of thiocyanate in the body.

What's more, the new findings could be particular useful in the search for a treatment for CF, an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive systems of about 30,000 children and adults in the US. CF results from a defective gene and its protein product that cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus which clogs the lungs and results in life-threatening lung infections. In fact, lung injuries caused by excessive inflammation and recurring infections cause about ninety percent of CF patients' symptoms and mortality. Dr. Lu's findings suggest that the lungs of people with the disease are more susceptible to the damaging effects of cellular oxidants so thiocyanate might potentially be helpful in treating the disease.

"In light of the obvious implications of this protective action of thiocyanate against the cell-damaging effect of MPO activity with regard to both CF disease and general population health, my colleagues and I will vigorously investigate the potential health benefit of thiocyanate," Dr. Lu said in a statement to the press. "Until the research community acquires a better understanding of both positive and negative impacts of thiocyanate on human health, it would be unwise for anyone to self-administer thiocyanate because like many other chemicals, thiocyanate has adverse side effects at improper doses and/or under inappropriate conditions."

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