Phytochemicals from cruciferous plants protect against cancer by modulating carcinogen metabolism

J Nutr. 2001 Nov;131(11 Suppl):3027S-33S. doi: 10.1093/jn/131.11.3027S.


Several epidemiologic studies suggest that consumption of cruciferous vegetables may be particularly effective (compared with total fruit and vegetable consumption) in reducing cancer risk at several organ sites. Crucifers that are widely consumed are especially rich in glucosinolates, which are converted by plant myrosinase and gastrointestinal microflora to isothiocyanates. A number of isothiocyanates and a limited number of glucosinolates that were examined effectively block chemical carcinogenesis in animal models. Many isothiocyanates are also potent inducers of phase 2 proteins. Substantial evidence supports the view that phase 2 enzyme induction is a highly effective strategy for reducing susceptibility to carcinogens. This conclusion has recently received strong molecular support from experiments on mice in which the specific transcription factor, nrf2, which is essential for induction of phase 2 proteins, was deleted. In these knock-out mice, the basal levels of phase 2 enzymes are very low and not inducible. Accordingly, these mice are much more susceptible than their wild-type counterparts to benzo[a]pyrene forestomach carcinogenesis and are not protected by phase 2 inducers. These experiments provide very strong evidence for a major role of phase 2 enzymes in controlling the risk of exposure to carcinogens. An increasing number of phase 2 proteins that exert a variety of protective mechanisms are being identified. Thus, in addition to detoxifying electrophiles, these proteins exercise versatile, long-lasting and catalytic antioxidant protection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / metabolism*
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / pharmacology
  • Brassicaceae / chemistry*
  • Brassicaceae / metabolism*
  • Carcinogens / metabolism*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Enzyme Induction / physiology
  • Glucosinolates / metabolism
  • Glucosinolates / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Isothiocyanates / metabolism*
  • Isothiocyanates / pharmacology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Carcinogens
  • Glucosinolates
  • Isothiocyanates