Two population-based, case-control studies have documented reduced risk of prostate cancer in men who consume cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferae contain high levels of the isothiocyanate sulforaphane. Sulforaphane is known to bolster the defenses of cells against carcinogens through up-regulation of enzymes of carcinogen defense (phase 2 enzymes). Prostate cancer is characterized by an early and near universal loss of expression of the phase 2 enzyme glutathione S-transferase (GST)-pi. We tested whether sulforaphane may act in prostatic cells by increasing phase 2 enzyme expression. The human prostate cancer cell lines LNCaP, MDA PCa 2a, MDA PCa 2b, PC-3, and TSU-Pr1 were treated with 0.1-15 microM sulforaphane in vitro. LNCaP was also treated with an aqueous extract of broccoli sprouts. Quinone reductase enzymatic activity, a surrogate of global phase 2 enzyme activity, was assayed by the menadione-coupled reduction of tetrazolium dye. Expression of NQO-1, GST-alpha, gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase-heavy and -light chains, and microsomal GST was assessed by Northern blot analysis. Sulforaphane and broccoli sprout extract potently induce quinone reductase activity in cultured prostate cells, and this induction appears to be mediated by increased transcription of the NQO-1 gene. Sulforaphane also induces expression of gamma-glutamylcysteine synthetase light subunit but not the heavy subunit, and this induction is associated with moderate increases in intracellular glutathione levels. Microsomal and alpha-class glutathione transferases were also induced transcriptionally. Sulforaphane induces phase 2 enzyme expression and activity significantly in human prostatic cells. This induction is accompanied by, but not because of, increased intracellular glutathione synthesis. Our findings may help explain the observed inverse correlation between consumption of cruciferae and prostate cancer risk.