Sulforaphane as anticancer agent: A double-edged sword? Tricky balance between effects on tumor cells and immune cells

Adv Biol Regul. 2019 Jan:71:79-87. doi: 10.1016/j.jbior.2018.11.006. Epub 2018 Nov 22.


Sulforaphane (SFN) is a naturally occurring isothiocyanate derived from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. It has been reported to inhibit the growth of a variety of cancers, such as breast, prostate, colon, skin, lung, gastric or bladder cancer. SFN is supposed to act primarily as an antioxidant due to the activation of the Nrf2-Keap1 signaling pathway. This enhances the activity of phase II detoxifying enzymes and the trapping of free radicals. Finally, SFN induces cell cycle arrest or apoptosis of tumor cells. Here, we discuss effects of SFN on the immune defense system. In contrast to the situation in tumor cells, SFN acts pro-oxidatively in primary human T cells. It increases intracellular ROS levels and decreases GSH, resulting in inhibition of T cell activation and T cell effector functions. Regarding the use of SFN as an "anticancer agent" we conclude that SFN could act as a double-edged sword. On the one hand it reduces carcinogenesis, on the other hand it blocks the T cell-mediated immune response, the latter being important for immune surveillance of tumors. Thus, SFN could also interfere with the successful application of immunotherapy by immune checkpoint inhibitors (e.g. CTLA-4 antibodies and PD-1/PD-L1 antibodies) or CAR T cells. Therefore, a combination of SFN with T cell-mediated cancer immunotherapies does not seem advisable.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Glutathione / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular / drug effects*
  • Isothiocyanates / adverse effects
  • Isothiocyanates / therapeutic use*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / immunology*
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms* / immunology
  • Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / immunology
  • Signal Transduction* / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction* / immunology
  • Sulfoxides
  • T-Lymphocytes* / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes* / pathology


  • Isothiocyanates
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Sulfoxides
  • sulforaphane
  • Glutathione