Broccoli Can’t Cure Colorectal Cancer
Sometimes science is really cool
Broccoli: the vegetable of wonder. From its stumpy, hardened base to its budding florets of delight, there’s truly no other piece of cruciferous joy that has been written about so many times as this green giant of cuisine.
What more could you ask?
This week in the news, yet another story about broccoli has been flying around. Apparently, not only is broccoli great steamed, it’s also the newest bowel cancer cure: “Broccoli-based yoghurt ‘could prevent and even cure the disease’”
Sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?
Sadly, as ever, it’s not quite as simple as it seems.
The (Really Cool) Science
Let’s take a look at the study itself. Not just so that we get the science right, but because this study is just really cool.
To start off with, we have to talk about broccoli. There’s good evidence that broccoli contains a number of chemicals that have various effects on cancerous cells, including preventing them from growing and stopping them from forming in the first place. The downside is that the body often doesn’t metabolize these effectively, or doesn’t get them to the right places to actually be of any use. Basically, broccoli has anti-cancer chemicals in it, but because of the way that our bodies work they don’t actually have much of an effect.
But what if we could change that?
What the scientists in this study did was identify a bacteria that creates an enzyme that increases the amount of anti-cancer chemicals in the bowel when you eat broccoli. They then bioengineered this bacteria to stick to cancer cells. They found that, with these altered bacteria, a diet of broccoli in mice was enough to significantly reduce the risk of getting bowel cancer and the size of tumours when it did happen.
As I said, really cool.
Here Comes The But…
Like I said, this study is great. The researchers may have discovered a low-risk treatment that could treat or even cure bowel cancer.
The important words there? “May have”.
This was very preliminary research. The scientists tested their idea in petri dishes, and when it worked moved onto mice with stimulated bowel cancer. It’s a huge leap forward, and very encouraging, but it’s still just a study done in 80 mice in a lab somewhere. We don’t even know if the bacteria will do the same thing at all to people — mouse and person guts are pretty different, after all.
But more importantly than any of that, anyone who is trying to tell you that broccoli is the cancer cure here is just wrong.
It’s worth noting that the coverage for this wasn’t all that bad. There were the usual stories about how broccoli is going to save the world, but most journalists decided to go with the incredibly cool science instead.
But even the great stories were a bit optimistic about how this research is going to change cancer forever.
The scientists have discovered an incredibly complex mix of bacteria, genetic fiddling, and vegetable. Without any one of these pieces, you’re left with nothing useful at all. It’s going to take a while to turn that into an actionable drug or therapy that you and I can take. And really, nothing major is going to happen for at least 5 years, because this hasn’t even been tested in actual living people yet, never mind proven to work in the real world.
Broccoli is pretty good for you. It’s a low-calorie, green vegetable that goes great in all kinds of food.
Just don’t expect it to cure your bowel cancer.
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