Broccoli may hold key to new diabetes treatment

A head of broccoli standing on two plates.
Sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli, may help in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.
Credit: Bernard Jaubert

A chemical compound found in broccoli offers a potential treatment alternative for type 2 diabetes, a study in Science Translational Medicine reveals.

The compound, sulforaphane, emerged as a possible drug-development target after a team led by Annika Axelsson, of the Lund University Diabetes Centre in Malmö, Sweden, constructed a “disease signature” for type 2 diabetes based on 50 genes and compared the result to “drug signatures” that map interactions between chemicals and their genetic targets.

Axelsson’s team tested 3,852 compounds and found that sulforaphane – present in many cruciferous vegetables, but especially in broccoli – seemed especially promising.

In the laboratory the team found that the compound reduced glucose production in cultured human liver cells, and altered liver gene expression in diabetes-affected rats.

In a follow up trial, Axelsson and colleagues enrolled 97 patients with type 2 diabetes and conducted a 12 week trial, with cohorts given daily concentrated broccoli extract or a placebo control.

They discovered that the extract “exerts a sustained effect on gene expression”. Obese patients receiving the extract showed significant improvement, they report.

Sulforaphane has been the focus of much previous research, particularly because of its observed cancer-protective effects, which it achieves by improving the body’s anti-oxidation ability. A March 2017 Japanese study also found it can be used to control obesity. [[ ]]

The compound’s use in managing type 2 diabetes could be of particular appeal for the estimated 15% of patients who cannot take the standard treatment, metformin, because in some cases it can increase the risk of kidney damage.

However, the scientists caution that the results so far, while encouraging, are still preliminary. Sulforaphane’s clinical deployment, they write, “cannot yet be recommended to patients as a drug treatment but would require further studies, including data on which groups of patients would potentially benefit most from it”.

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