Science and your health

Eat Broccoli and survive a nuclear disaster

The key to surviving radiation may lie in Broccoli
The key to surviving radiation may lie in Broccoli

The key to surviving radiation may lie in Broccoli: a compound derived from this and other cruciferous vegetables  such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts or cabbage, protected rodents from lethal doses of radiation in recent experiments.

The compound, 3,3’-diindolylmethane or DIM, gets produced in the stomach after people eat cruciferous vegetables. Well known for fighting cancer in animal experiments, the compound is available as a dietary supplement.

In 2009, clinical researchers Eliot Rosen, Saijun Fan and colleagues at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., found that the compound does something more: It can shield cells from chemical damage wrought by hydrogen peroxide, Rosen says.

Rosen and colleagues next decided to see if DIM protects against ionizing radiation, the kind released in nuclear disasters and that cancer patients receive to wipe out tumors. The effects of cancer radiation treatments often damage healthy cells, and Rosen wondered whether DIM could protect them. What’s more, DIM seemed promising because no effective treatments exist to stave off sickness in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

The researchers zapped rats with a hefty dose of gamma rays, a type of ionizing radiation. The dose was enough to kill the animals within 10 days. When the researchers injected a group of the rodents with daily doses of DIM starting two hours after the radiation exposure, 60 percent of the animals survived for at least 30 days and appeared healthy. Thirty percent survived when the researchers held off on DIM injections until 24 hours after exposure. The team reports the results October 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cancer patients could take DIM to prevent side effects of radiation therapy. Rosen says that patients would probably need to take DIM as an injection or in pill form, rather than eating huge quantities of broccoli, to make enough of the compound in their bodies. The next step is clearly to see whether it works in humans.


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