Eating broccoli or drinking a glass of wine may send out a biochemical battle cry to your body, prompting it to boost its defenses against cancer-causing DNA damage, according to a new study.

Researchers say the findings may explain how the anticancer ingredients found in certain foods and drinks can help our bodies fight cancer.

"Compounds like sulforaphane in broccoli and resveratrol in wine have been shown to prevent cancer," states researcher Andrew Mesecar, in a press release. Mesecar is an associate professor of pharmaceutical biotechnology at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy. "They do that by signaling our bodies to ramp up the production of proteins capable of preventing damage to our DNA.”

“We now have a good idea how that signal works,” says Mesecar.

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New Model of How Foods Fight Cancer

Previous studies have shown that two key proteins, Keap1 and Nrf2, are involved in stimulating the body’s anticancer defenses when disease-fighting foods are eaten.

The first protein senses the presence of anticancer compounds like reservratrol and then reacts with the second protein, which acts as a messenger to turn on the genes responsible for boosting production of protective proteins.

Researchers say studies in mice show that the anticancer compounds found in food and wine work by severing the ties between the two proteins and allowing Nrf2 to go about its business boosting the body’s defenses.

But researchers say this study indicates it doesn’t work the same way in humans.

Their findings, which appear in this week’s early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show the connection between the two proteins is not broken in humans when anticancer compounds are consumed.

Instead, researchers say these anticancer ingredients alter the composition of Keap1. This change spurs higher levels of the Nrf2 and results in increased production of the protective proteins.

Therefore, researchers say Keap1 may be a prime target for drug development to fight cancer.

"One way of preventing cancer may be to eat certain foods rich in cancer-preventing compounds. An alternative is identifying how these compounds work and replicating their modes of action with drugs," says Mesecar.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Eggler, A. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 11, online early edition. Press release, University of Illinois at Chicago.