Eat Your Broccoli!
Published Mar 3, 2008 8:00 AM
Eat your broccoli! That's the advice from a new UCLA study that showed a chemical in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables may hold a key to restoring immunity that declines as we age.
Published in this week's online edition of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers found that a chemical in broccoli switches on a set of antioxidant genes and enzymes in specific immune cells that are then able to combat the injurious effects of free radicals that can damage cells and lead to disease.
Free radicals are byproducts of normal processes, such as the metabolic conversion of food into energy and can also enter the body through small particles present in polluted air. Free radicals, which are a supercharged form of oxygen, can cause oxidative tissue damage leading to disease - such as triggering the inflammation process that causes clogged arteries. Oxidative damage of body tissues and organs probably constitutes one of the major reasons why we age.
"The mysteries of aging have always intrigued man," said Dr. Andre Nel, principal investigator and chief of nanomedicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "While we have known for some time that free radicals are important in aging, most of the past attention has focused on the mechanisms that produce free radicals rather than addressing the pathways used by the body to suppress their production."
A dynamic equilibrium exists in the body between the mechanisms that lead to increased radical production versus those antioxidant pathways that help to combat free radicals.
"Our study contributes to the growing understanding of the importance of these antioxidant defense pathways that the body uses to fight free radicals. Insight into these processes point to ways in which we may be able to alleviate the effects of aging," said Nel, a practicing clinical allergist and immunologist at the Geffen School of Medicine.
The delicate balance between pro-oxidant and antioxidant forces in the body could determine the outcome of many disease processes that are associated with aging including cardiovascular disease, degenerative joint diseases, and diabetes, as well as an efficiency decline of the immune system in offering protection against infectious agents.
"As we age, the ability of the immune system to fight disease, infections and protect against cancer wears down as a result of the impact of oxygen radicals on the immune system," said Nel.
According to the UCLA study, the ability of aged tissues to reinvigorate their antioxidant defense can play an important role to reverse much of the negative impact of free radicals on the immune system. However, until this study, the extent to which the antioxidant defense can impact the aging process in the immune system was not properly understood.
"Our defense against oxidative stress damage may determine at what rate we age, how it will manifest and how to interfere in those processes," said Nel. "In particular, our study shows that a chemical present in broccoli is capable of stimulating a wide range of antioxidant defense pathways and may be able to interfere with the age-related decline in immune function."
The UCLA team found that not only did the direct administration of a chemical in broccoli reverse the decline in cellular immune function in old mice but researchers had similar results when they took individual immune cells from old mice, treated those cells with the chemical outside of the body and then placed the treated cells back into a recipient animal.
In particular, the UCLA scientists discovered that dendritic cells, which introduce infectious agents and foreign substances to the immune system, were particularly effective in restoring immune function in aged animals when treated with the chemical in broccoli called sulforaphane.
"We found that treating older mice with sulforaphane increased the immune response to the level of younger mice," said Hyon-Jeen Kim, first author and research scientist with the Geffen School of Medicine.
To investigate how the chemical in broccoli increased the immune system's response, the UCLA group confirmed that sulforaphane interacts with a protein called Nrf2, that serves as a master regulator of the overall antioxidant response and that is capable of switching on hundreds of antioxidant and rejuvenating genes and enzymes.
Nel notes that the chemistry leading to activation of this gene regulation pathway could be a platform for drug discovery and vaccine development to boost decline of the immune function in elderly people.
"This is a radical new way of thinking in how to increase the immune function of elderly people to possibly protect against viral infections and cancer," said Nel. "We may have uncovered a new mechanism by which to boost vaccine responses by using a nutrient chemical to impact oxidant stress pathways in the immune system."
Kim adds that although there is a decline in Nrf2 activity with aging, this pathway remains accessible to chemicals like sulforaphane that are capable of restoring some of the ravages of aging by boosting antioxidant pathways.
The next step is further study to see how these findings would translate to humans.
"Dietary antioxidants have been shown to have important effects on immune function and with further study we may be adding broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables to that list," said Nel.
For now, Nel suggests including these vegetables as part of a healthy diet.
Nel adds that these findings offer a window into how the immune system ages.
"We may find that combating free radicals is only part of the answer. It may prove to be a more multi-faceted process and interplay between pro and antioxidant forces," Nel said.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Aging, the UCLA Claude D. Pepper Older Adults Independence Center and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Other authors include Berenice Barajas, and Dr. Meiying Wang.