New scientific research from the University of
Southampton has revealed that a plant compound in watercress
may have the ability to suppress breast cancer cell
development by 'turning off' a signal in the body and
thereby starving the growing tumour of essential blood and
The research, unveiled at a press conference today (14
September 2010), shows that the watercress compound is able
to interfere with the function of a protein which plays a
critical role in cancer development.
As tumours develop they rapidly outgrow their existing
blood supply so they send out signals which make surrounding
normal tissues grow new blood vessels into the tumour which
feed them oxygen and nutrients.
The research, led by Professor Graham Packham of the
University of Southampton, shows that the plant compound
(called phenylethyl isothiocyanate) found in watercress can
block this process, by interfering with and ‘turning off’ in
the function of a protein called Hypoxia Inducible Factor
Professor Packham, a molecular oncologist at the
University of Southampton, comments: “The research takes an
important step towards understanding the potential health
benefits of this crop since it shows that eating watercress
may interfere with a pathway that has already been tightly
linked to cancer development.
“Knowing the risk factors for cancer is a key goal and
studies on diet are an important part of this. However,
relatively little work is being performed in the UK on the
links between the foods we eat and cancer development."
Working with Barbara Parry, Senior Research Dietician at
the Winchester and Andover Breast Unit, Professor Packham
performed a pilot study in which a small group of breast
cancer survivors, underwent a period of fasting before
eating 80g of watercress (a cereal bowl full) and then
providing a series of blood samples over the next 24 hours.
The research team was able to detect significant levels
of the plant compound PEITC in the blood of the participants
following the watercress meal, and most importantly, could
show that the function of the protein HIF was also
measurably affected in the blood cells of the women.
The two studies, which have been published in the British
Journal of Nutrition and Biochemical Pharmacology, provide
new insight into the potential anti-cancer effects of
watercress, although more work still needs to be done to
determine the direct impact watercress has on decreasing
Watercress Alliance member Dr Steve Rothwell says: “We
are very excited by the outcome of Professor Packham’s work,
which builds on the body of research which supports the idea
that watercress may have an important role to play in
limiting cancer development.”
A summary of the research has been accepted for inclusion
in the Breast Cancer Research Conference which is taking
place in Nottingham from 15 to 17 September.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the
western world and currently affects approximately 1 in 9
women during their lifetime.
- Sharifah S. Syed Alwi, Breeze E. Cavell, Urvi Telang,
Marilyn E. Morris, Barbara M. Parry, Graham Packham.
In vivo modulation of 4E binding protein 1
(4E-BP1) phosphorylation by watercress: a pilot study.
British Journal of Nutrition, 2010; 1 DOI:
- Xiu-Hong Wang, Breeze E. Cavell, Sharifah S. Syed
Alwi, Graham Packham. Inhibition of hypoxia
inducible factor by phenethyl isothiocyanate.
Biochemical Pharmacology, 2009; 78 (3): 261