Food Shows Promise to Prevent Breast Cancer

Most people think of watercress as a garnish for some food dish – a sort of decorative afterthought.

Now researchers at the University of Southampton have discovered that it may have the ability to suppress breast cancer cell development by ‘turning off’ a signal in the body and thereby starving the growing tumor of essential blood and oxygen.

That’s a pretty big deal since right now 1 in 9 women in the western world experiences breast cancer at some time in their life. If it proves out, we’ll have a substance that can prevent breast cancer in women.

The part of the watercress that performs this amazing feat is called phenylethyl isothiocyanate. It functions by cutting off the blood supply to the cancer. This means that the cancer can’t grow.

What I found interesting in this study is that it was done on women survivors of breast cancer. That’s far beyond the stage of testing on animals.

These women were given a bowl of watercress to eat on an empty stomach. Then blood samples were drawn over the next 24 hours. The samples showed an elevated level of phenylethyl isothiocyanate, as well as a decrease in the activity of a substance called Hypoxia Inducible Factor (HIF). HIF is part of what allows breast cancers to grow.

By turning off the factor that is necessary for cancer cells to multiply, the thought is that they will never have a chance to grow.

In the study, the women ate 80 grams of watercress. That’s the amount that would fit into a cereal bowl. That’s more watercress than most people normally eat. And easier way to take in that much would be to juice it as part of a health veggie juice drink.

Although this research is very promising, there isn’t yet rock-solid evidence that it will help treat or prevent breast cancer. Even so, it seems likely that women who choose to eat watercress will certainly not be doing any harm, and they may be taking a powerful preventive step to avoid breast cancer.


  1. 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: 10.1017/S0007114510002217
  2. 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 DOI: 10.1016/j.bcp.2009.04.010
  3. University of Southampton. “Watercress May ‘Turn Off’ Breast Cancer Signal.” ScienceDaily 14 September 2010. 26 October 2010­ /releases/2010/09/100914115240.htm.

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