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Vegetable-derived isothiocyanates: anti-proliferative activity and mechanism of action

  • Yuesheng Zhang (a1), Song Yao (a1) and Jun Li (a1)


Many isothiocyanates (ITC), which are available to human subjects mainly through consumption of cruciferous vegetables, demonstrate strong cancer-preventive activity in animal models. Human studies also show an inverse association between consumption of ITC and risk of cancer in several organs. Whereas earlier studies primarily focused on the ability of ITC to inhibit carcinogen-activating enzymes and induce carcinogen-detoxifying enzymes, more recent investigations have shown that ITC inhibit the proliferation of tumour cells both in vitro and in vivo by inducing apoptosis and arresting cell cycle progression. ITC cause acute cellular stress, which may be the initiating event for these effects. These findings shed new light on the mechanism of action of ITC and indicate that ITC may be useful both as cancer-preventive and therapeutic agents. ITC activate caspase 9-mediated apoptosis, apparently resulting from mitochondrial damage, and also activate caspase 8, but the mechanism remains to be defined. Cell cycle arrest caused by ITC occurs mainly in the G2/M phase, and both the G2 and M phases are targetted; critical G2-phase regulators, including cyclin B1, cell division cycle (Cdc) 2 and Cdc25C, are down regulated or inhibited, and tubulin polymerization and spindle assembly are disrupted. Moreover, ITC are metabolized in vivo through the mercapturic acid pathway, giving rise to thiol conjugates (dithiocarbamates). Studies show that these dithiocarbamates are similar to their parent ITC in exerting anti-proliferative activity. Taken together, dietary ITC are highly-promising anti-cancer agents, capable of targetting multiple cellular components that are important for tumour cell survival and proliferation.

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Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Dr Y. Zhang, fax +1 716 845 1144, email


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