Caregiver's Home Companion

Posted: September 23, 2008

Can Broccoli Help Treat Chronic Lung Disease?

You know it's good for you in other ways, but could eating broccoli also help patients with chronic lung disease? It just might – especially for smokers.

According to recent research at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, a decrease in lung concentrations of NRF2-dependent antioxidants, which are key components of the lung's defense system against inflammatory injury, are linked to the severity of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease -- or COPD -- in smokers. Broccoli is known to contain a compound that prevents the degradation of NFR2.

In this study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, researchers examined tissue samples from the lungs of smokers with and without COPD, which is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States.

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Their goal was to determine whether there were differences in measured levels of NRF2 expression and the level of its biochemical regulators, including KEAP1, which inhibits NRF2, and DJ-1, which stabilizes it. Essentially, these regulators act as a gas pedal and brake with NRF2.

Previous research had shown that disruption in NRF2 expression in mice exposed to cigarette smoke caused early onset of severe emphysema.

When compared with non-COPD lungs, the lungs of patients with COPD showed markedly decreased levels of NRF2-dependent antioxidants, increased oxidative stress markers.

There was also a significant decrease in NRF2 protein with no change in NRF2 mRNA levels (indicating that it was expressed, but subsequently degraded), and similar KEAP1 levels, but a marked decrease in the level of DJ-1.

"NRF2-dependent antioxidants and DJ-1 expression was negatively associated with severity of COPD," wrote principle investigator, Shyam Biswal, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences and Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at Hopkins. "Therapy directed toward enhancing NRF2-regulated antioxidants may be a novel strategy for attenuating the effects of oxidative stress in the pathogenesis of COPD."

While clinical trials of antioxidants have been disappointing in improving the clinical progress of patients with COPD, this study points to a possibility of benefit from restoring NRF2 levels in damaged lungs by reducing the action of KEAP1, which is an inhibitor of NRF2.

"Increasing NRF2 may also restore important detoxifying enzymes to counteract other effects of tobacco smoke," wrote Dr. Peter Barnes, of the National Heart and Lung Institute in London, in an accompanying editorial. "This has been achieved in vitro and in vivo by isothiocynate compounds, such as sulforaphane, which occurs naturally in broccoli and [wasabi]."

Sulforaphane has been shown to be able to restore antioxidant gene expression in human epithelial tissue in which DJ-1 has been reduced. Isothicyanate compounds such as that found in broccoli inhibit KEAP1, and thus prevent it from degrading NRF2, according to Barnes.

"Future studies should target NRF2 as a novel strategy to increase antioxidant protection in the lungs and test its ability to decrease exacerbations and improve lung function in patients with COPD," Biswal said.

(Article courtesy of

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