The sulfur compound has already been shown to be chemopreventative (stopping or reversing cancer growth)- but the study conducted at Rutgers University in the US focused specifically on SFN's impact on hereditary cancers, in this case colon cancer in mice.
"Our results clearly demonstrated that those mice fed with an SFN-supplemented diet developed significantly fewer and smaller tumors," said study leader professor Ah-Ng Tony Kong.
The researchers used a specially bred strain of mice carrying a gene directly implicated in the development of most colon cancers in humans. The mice (labeled Apc/Min/+) carry a mutation that switches off the Apc gene that suppresses tumors. Polyps develop in the mice when this gene is inactivated.
The SFN was seen to bring about cancer preventive effects in the mice by inducing programmed cell death, or apoptosis, in the mice.
Two groups of mice were fed diets supplemented with SFN over the three-week period. One group received 300 parts per million (ppm) SFN and the other 600 ppm.
At the end of the period, the average number of polyps in the small intestine in each mouse decreased more than 25 percent in those on the 300 ppm diet and 47 percent in the 600 ppm treatment group.
Kong's team found that SFN suppressed certain enzymes highly expressed in mice and in patients with colon cancer. The researchers concluded that this enzymatic suppression activity is the likely basis for the chemopreventive effects of SFN.
"Our research has substantiated the connection between diet and cancer prevention, and it is now clear that the expression of cancer-related genes can be influenced by chemopreventive compounds in the things we eat," said Dr Kong.
One third of all cancer deaths in the US, 186,000 lives per year, are related to diet and activity factors, estimates the American Cancer Society. Cancer Research UK cites that more than 26,000 deaths from cancer and heart disease in under 65s could be prevented each year in the EU if fruit and vegetable consumption was significantly increased - and about the same number of deaths could be prevented in the 65-75 age bracket alone.
Dr Kong believes the new research will add further clout to this preventative link.