Researcher Examines Links between Broccoli and Cancer Prevention
This month we spoke with Barbara Schneider, PhD, who received a grant from the Foundation in spring 2007 to study whether broccoli extract can help prevent gastric (stomach) cancer. We caught up with Dr. Schneider to learn more about her research and how the Foundation’s funding impacted her career.
1. What led you to the field of gastric cancer research?
I used to work in San Antonio, Texas, and I was intrigued by the fact that incidence of gastric cancer was higher in people of Hispanic descent than in those of northern European ancestry, while the incidence of colon cancer was lower in Hispanics. Colon cancer and gastric cancer incidence rates were reversed in those two populations, suggesting that, if we could learn what was causing the differences, we might be able to lower cancer incidence in both populations.
2. Tell us about your research to evaluate broccoli extract as a chemopreventive against gastric cancer.
We learned from a colleague that a compound found naturally in broccoli and broccoli sprouts increases the body’s ability to protect itself from toxins, including cancer-causing chemicals. Also, many studies have shown that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, especially broccoli and its relatives like bok choy, cabbage, kale, collard greens and cauliflower, have a lower cancer incidence than people who eat fewest of these plants.
We had a mouse strain with a mutation causing it to get gastric cancer by about 6 months, so we thought this would be a good system to test whether broccoli sprout extract in the drinking water could slow or prevent cancer in these mice. If it did, then we would have a way to test the exact chemical changes that happen during the development of the cancer and how the broccoli extract affects those changes. This might even lead to a targeted therapy, we thought. As it happened, we did not see a decrease in cancer incidence in the mice. Apparently this particular genetic defect was too strong to be overcome by the diet. That is the way research works: you never know until you try, and sometimes the idea works and sometimes not. But we will keep trying.
3. How did receiving a Prevent Cancer Foundation grant impact your research?
Even though the idea we tested was not supported, since we had the data anyway as part of the broccoli study, we used the measurements we made from the untreated mutant mice as part of a study of how and why this mouse gets cancer, and it seems to be that inflammatory changes are happening in the mice, even though the mice do not have any infection that would make them sick. The genetic mutation is leading to changes that look like inflammation. We published a nice paper from that, and we are continuing to study how inflammation promotes gastric cancer, especially inflammation that is chronic, lasting for years.
4. Why is it important to fund research in the field of cancer prevention and early detection?
As the American Cancer Society puts it, more than 60% of cancer deaths could be eliminated if people get exercise, eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables and get screened—and don’t smoke. That represents an enormous number of lives that could be saved. In the U.S., the obesity epidemic is worrisome, because colon and breast cancer are more common in obese people. As for early detection, small cancers are easiest to treat, and survival rates are highest for those tumors detected earliest, especially for breast, colon and skin cancers.