Phytoestrogens as natural prodrugs in cancer prevention: a novel concept

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It has been generally accepted that regular consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is linked with a relatively low incidence of cancers (e.g. breast, cervix, and colon). A number of plant-derived compounds have been identified that are considered to play a role in cancer prevention. However, at present there is no satisfactory explanation for the cancer preventative properties of the above-mentioned compound groups. The current review is an effort to develop a consistent and unambiguous model that explains how some plant-derived compounds can prevent tumour development. The model is based on recent discoveries in the fields of genomics and drug-metabolism; notably, the discovery that CYP1 genes are highly expressed in developing tumour cells but not in the surrounding tissue, and that a variety of plant-derived compounds are substrates for the CYP1 enzymes. Our hypothesis is that some dietary compounds act as prodrugs, i.e. compounds with little or no biological effect as such, but become pharmaceutically effective when activated. More specifically, we state that the abovementioned prodrugs are only activated in CYP1-expressing cells—i.e. cells in the early stages of tumour development—to be converted into compounds which inhibit cell growth. Thus, the prodrugs selectively kill precancerous cells early in tumour development. The review focuses on the identification of naturally-occurring prodrugs that are activated by the tumour-specific CYP1 enzymes and aims to assess their role in cancer prevention.

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