SCIENTISTS are examining whether watercress grown in Hampshire can help in the fight against cancer.

Researchers are hoping to find an answer with the launch of the first ever watercress breast cancer study.

It comes exactly three years after Southampton scientists unveiled the superfood’s cancer-killing potential.

Two hundred breast cancer patients are being recruited for the international study, part-funded by Hampshire watercress producers, that will involve the consumption of a bag of fresh watercress a day to test the importance of a healthy diet during radiotherapy treatment.

Cancer signal The eight-week dietary trail was triggered by the breakthrough by experts at the University of Southampton who revealed the vitamin-rich vegetable can halt the growth of cancer cells.

The study, which gets under way on October 1, the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, hopes to build on that research, led by Cancer Research UK’s Professor Graham Packham, which identified several compounds within watercress that may have significant cancer fighting properties.

His team found that its cancer fighting abilities come from a plant compound which is able to starve tumours of essential blood and oxygen by “turning off” a cancer signal in the body.

At the time, Professor Packham called for a much larger study to build on the results of his small pilot study in order to give definitive answers for proving the anti-cancer benefits of watercress, of which 90 per cent of the UK’s crop is grown in Hampshire.

The aim of this latest study, which is being part-funded by Hampshire’s Alresford Salads and Vitacress Salads, plus Dorset’s Watercress Company, is to evaluate the role of watercress in enhancing the body’s response to the treatment as well as protecting against skin damage – a side effect of radiotherapy.

There will be 100 women in a control group, with the other 100 being asked to eat a 100g bag of fresh watercress a day over eight weeks of radiotherapy treatment.

Blood samples will be taken and analysed after eight weeks, three months, one year and three years.

First study The study, which is also being funded by watercress producers in the UK and Portugal, is being carried out by the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Medicine, the radiotherapy department of the University of Santa Maria and the University of Reading.

Ian Rowland, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Reading, said: “As far as we are aware this is the first study in patients looking at the impact of a healthy dietary component such as watercress on outcomes and side effects of radiotherapy for cancer.

“If the diet is shown to be effective, the results will be shared with other professionals to highlight the importance of maintaining a healthy diet when undergoing radiotherapy.”

The pilot trial back in 2010 was carried out in two phases, in the laboratory and like this latest study, in a dietary trial involving a small group of breast cancer survivors from Hampshire.

The laboratory tests showed that the compound phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), of which watercress is the richest natural source, had the ability to interfere with a critical function in cancer development.

As tumours develop they rapidly outgrow their existing blood supply and further development is not possible until they are able to get enough oxygen and nutrients to maintain the growth of cancer cells.

The cancer cells send out signals which cause the surrounding normal tissues to grow new blood vessels into the tumour, which then supply the essential nutrients, known as angiogenesis.

But what the study found in the lab was that PEITC was able to block the growth of new blood vessels and effectively starve the tumour.

It is this ability to starve the tumours that will be tested in this new bigger study, in a bid to help prevent the disease.

Professor Packham said: “This is not about a cure for cancer, it is more a preventative measure as part of a healthy lifestyle which reduces the risk of cancer.”

The beneficial properties of watercress have been revered down the centuries.

But until now no clinical investigations have been undertaken to demonstrate how eating watercress as part of a healthy diet exerted its protective influence on humans.