Studying how diets rich in broccoli could prevent prostate cancer progression

17th June 2022

It has been reported that certain compounds found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli can prevent prostate cancer progression. How these broccoli compounds slow the growth of cancer cells is the focus of Gemma Beasy’s PhD. Here we find out more about Gemma’s research and what inspired her to work in science.

A young women wearing a lab coat with orange gloves and mask, pipetting

“Prostate cancer develops when cells in the prostate start to grow in an uncontrolled way and is the most common cancer in males in the UK’’.

Human studies in individuals who have prostate cancer have shown that eating broccoli may inhibit the risk of prostate cancer cells. These studies focused on a broccoli compound called sulforaphane that is produced by the gut when the compound glucoraphanin is broken down.

There are other broccoli compounds that could have similar properties, but these are not so well studied. My project is trying to find out why the known broccoli compounds have this effect, and whether the unexplored compounds have this effect too.

I work with cells isolated from human prostate. The prostate cancer cells grow very quickly, within a week I can plan and start an experiment.

The cells grow in one layer called a mono-layer. Although in humans there are more cells and other factors, like zones within the prostate to consider, using cultured cells are a good tool.

I add these different sulfur compounds from broccoli to the cells and using different experiments I can see the effect of these compounds on the cells.

We have a tool called ‘the Seahorse’. The machine measures live cell metabolism and does this through adding different compounds which are known to affect a process called respiration. Energy is produced through respiration and so, if you can reduce respiration and metabolism of the cancer cells this reduces the cancer cells’ ability to grow and proliferate. This reduces the cancer growth.

I’m also looking at the how the sulfur compounds affect genes inside the cells along with the effect on different metabolites which are things the cell needs to grow like amino acids. If we can understand what is happening at a molecular level, through gene and metabolite analysis, then this could help our understanding of how we can reduce the cancer cell growth.

I chose this PhD because the relationship between what we eat and cancer really interests me.

I’ve always enjoyed science. We are like a walking experiment. There’s chemical reactions happening in our bodies that are automatically occurring and keeping us alive without us telling our bodies.

I grew up in Norfolk and used to dance, sing and perform when I was younger, but always knew a career in science was for me. I chose to study biochemistry at university.

I did a year in industry as part of my undergraduate degree and that was mainly looking at how macrophages took on yeast cells through processes like autophagy and LC3-phagocytosis.

Then I started working on liver cancer with Maria Traka here at the Quadram Institute in my final year of my degree. I absolutely loved it and the concept of how the compounds within foods influence disease progression, especially in cancer. From this project, I received the Top Project Award from the Royal Society of Biology at the Houses of Parliament.

This PhD project was advertised and was a perfect follow on from my final year project to investigate further how compounds within broccoli prevent prostate cancer progression.

The PhD is hard work but very rewarding. I’m in my final year now. At the beginning you think four years is a long time but when you’re approaching the end it doesn’t feel like a long time at all.

I would say a huge part of a PhD is trouble shooting and a very small part is when an experiment works and you get results and data, and that’s what goes in the PhD thesis. There’s a lot of work behind it.

I really like the troubleshooting element, having a hypothesis and then figuring out what experimental design to use to test this hypothesis.

It’s a nice community here at the Quadram Institute. The Quadram Student Forum is a great supportive group that organise workshops and events for students to keep the community together.

In fact, they did a productivity workshop which recommended if you’re getting overwhelmed in the lab to do a little dance, and it’s completely right. A little dance makes you feel ten times better.

I feel like there’s lots of doors open after my PhD. Even though a PhD is focused on a specific area, it gives you a lot of transferable skills that you can apply to other areas of research and industry.

I’d like to stay in research and here in Norwich too, as the Norwich Research Park is a hub brimming with amazing research and postdoctoral opportunities in life sciences.

Long term I’m also thinking about taking my research experience and applying it to industry.

I’m keen to keep all my options open.”

Gemma Beasy’s PhD is supported and funded by the BigC Cancer Charity Scientific/Clinical Research Grant 16-13R, and BBSRC Institute Strategic Programme Food Innovation and Health Grant BB/R012512/1 and its constituent project BBS/E/F/000PR10343 (Theme 1, Food Innovation) to QIB.