Ointment for Skin Cancer—Made From What?

Sep 27, 2013

With skin cancer emerging as one of the world’s most prevalent forms of cancer, researchers are using every tool at their disposal to fight the disease. The tool of choice for Sally Dickinson, PhD?

Let’s say her interest in certain vegetables doesn’t lie in cooking them.

A diet heavy in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli sprouts, has shown potential risk-reduction properties for colorectal, prostate and various other forms of cancer. Dickinson’s research is currently focusing on how sulforaphane—a naturally occurring compound in broccoli with established chemopreventive properties—could possibly be used to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

What sets Dickinson’s research apart? Instead of suggesting that patients eat broccoli to unlock its risk-reduction nutrients, she’s asking them to apply small doses of sulforaphane to their skin. Think of it as a broccoli-based sunscreen additive.

“Even though there is heightened awareness about the need for limited sun exposure and [the importance] of sunscreens, we’re still seeing far too many cases of skin cancer each year,” she said. “We’re searching for better methods to prevent skin cancer in formats that are affordable and manageable for public use. Sulforaphane may be an excellent candidate for use in the prevention of skin cancer caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays.”

Dickinson, a research assistant professor in the pharmacology department at the University of Arizona and a UA Cancer Center member, began investigating broccoli’s chemopreventive properties when she began her postdoctoral studies in 2005 in the laboratory of Tim Bowden, PhD, one of the UACC’s most influential research scientists. Under Bowden’s guidance, Dickinson pursued her postdoctoral training. As Bowden transitions into retirement, Dickinson will take over the majority of his lab’s ongoing projects, including this in-depth look into sulforaphane.

So how would topical broccoli-based ointments differ from products currently available in stores? Dickinson’s research shows that sulforaphane is a highly adaptable, highly effective agent when it comes to inhibiting cancer-causing pathways (such as the AP-1 protein) and activating chemoprotective genes (such as the Nrf2 gene).

Her pilot study, conducted in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, will test a topical broccoli sprout solution on the skin of a group of patients to see if the compound is effective in the context of solar-simulated light, explained Nick Prevenas, associate editor at the UA Cancer Center office of public affairs. Previous studies have shown that the extract is quite safe for both topical and oral administration.

Dickinson believes that if the research proves successful, it could lead to even more applications for sulforaphane. “Sulforaphane is the kind of compound that has so many incredible theoretical applications if the dosage is measured properly,” she said. “We already know that it is very effective in blocking sunburns, and we have seen cases where it can induce protective enzymes in the skin.”

Sulforaphane is one of the many natural products and pharmaceutical agents being explored for use in topical prevention of UV-induced skin cancers through the Chemoprevention of Skin Cancer Program Project Grant, headed by Bowden and UACC Director David Alberts, MD.

Someday, patients with compromised immune systems may be applying sulforaphane to their skin to reduce their risk of skin cancer. Will that also be a day when parents begin urging their children not only to eat their vegetables but to wear them as well?

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