Eat Your Broccoli: Vegetable-Derived Compound Shows Promise for Type 2 Diabetes

Sulforaphane has been found to lower glucose production and improve control in T2D patients.

A natural compound that occurs in broccoli and other vegetables could help lower blood sugar levels in patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D).

The compoud, sulforaphane, was found to suppress the liver’s production of glucose, a study published in Science Translational Medicine reported. Controlling glucose is key to managing T2D.

“We validated in both cells, animals and patients that sulforaphane has an effect on blood glucose,” Anders Rosengren (pictured), MD, PhD, principal investigator at Lund University Diabetes Center in Malmo, Sweden, said.

Current diabetes treatment focuses on diet and drugs such as metformin (Glucophage, Bristol-Myers Squibb). But because medicines can cause side effects and some patients can’t tolerate them and stop therapy, scientists continue to look for alternatives.

“Finding additional treatment options to reduce exaggerated hepatic glucose production is therefore a high priority,” researchers wrote.

Rosengren and colleagues from Switzerland and the US set out to find a new medication with fewer side effects by first investigating the genetic changes in the liver that occur with T2D. They used mathematical modeling to identify genes that were altered in T2D, Rosengren said, simultaneously looking for compounds that could affect such genes.

“We analyzed totally 2,800 different compounds with bioinformatics — and sulforaphane was the top hit,” Rosengren said.

The scientists left their computers and went into the lab to put the hypothesis to experimental testing — first in liver cells, then in rodents, and then in humans.

The team recruited 103 T2D patients and gave them broccoli sprout extract for 12 weeks, in addition to their current diabetes medication.A total of 97 individuals completed the study. Sixty had well-regulated T2D and 37 had dysregulated T2D. Of the patients with dysregulated T2D, 17 were obese.

The obese patients who took sulforaphane had significantly lower blood sugar levels than those in the placebo group, according to the study.

The impact of sulforaphane on people was surprising and encouraging, Rosengren said.

“We indeed could translate the cellular and animal findings to patients and see such positive effects,” Rosengren said. “The translation to patients is the bottleneck in medical research and that's often where most findings are hampered.”

The team will now work to make broccoli sprout extract available to patients as a functional food to improve blood glucose control.

“It is possible to measure clinically which patients have increased glucose production to enable tailored treatment to those who would benefit most from it,” Rosengren said.

The study, "Sulforaphane reduces hepatic glucose production and improves glucose control in patients with type 2 diabetes," was published online in the journal Science Translational Medicine.