Benefits and risks of the hormetic effects of dietary isothiocyanates on cancer prevention

Yongping Bao, Wei Wang, Zhigang Zhou, Changhao Sun

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The isothiocyanate (ITC) sulforaphane (SFN) was shown at low levels (1-5 µM) to promote cell proliferation to 120-143% of the controls in a number of human cell lines, whilst at high levels (10-40 µM) it inhibited such cell proliferation. Similar dose responses were observed for cell migration, i.e. SFN at 2.5 µM increased cell migration in bladder cancer T24 cells to 128% whilst high levels inhibited cell migration. This hormetic action was also found in an angiogenesis assay where SFN at 2.5 µM promoted endothelial tube formation (118% of the control), whereas at 10-20 µM it caused significant inhibition. The precise mechanism by which SFN influences promotion of cell growth and migration is not known, but probably involves activation of autophagy since an autophagy inhibitor, 3-methyladenine, abolished the effect of SFN on cell migration. Moreover, low doses of SFN offered a protective effect against free-radical mediated cell death, an effect that was enhanced by co-treatment with selenium. These results suggest that SFN may either prevent or promote tumour cell growth depending on the dose and the nature of the target cells. In normal cells, the promotion of cell growth may be of benefit, but in transformed or cancer cells it may be an undesirable risk factor. In summary, ITCs have a biphasic effect on cell growth and migration. The benefits and risks of ITCs are not only determined by the doses, but are affected by interactions with Se and the measured endpoint.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere114764
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 22 Dec 2014


  • cruciferous vegetables
  • isothiocyanate
  • sulforaphane
  • hormesis
  • NF-E2-related factor 2
  • angiogenesis
  • cancer

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