The Broccoli Doc He'd rather talk about the larger issue

March 31, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

Dr. Paul Talalay -- the Johns Hopkins professor of recent broccoli fame -- doesn't really want to talk anymore about the little green vegetable that landed him on national news.

While eating recently at a Fells Point restaurant where the lunch special that day included -- you got it -- broccoli, the doctor didn't even bother to order it. He chose veal and french fries and washed it down with a beer instead.

"I hope that broccoli would be a minor part of this interview," said the molecular pharmacologist who directed a team of Johns Hopkins Medical School researchers who isolated a chemical found in broccoli and similar vegetables. The chemical -- sulforaphane -- seems to boost the cancer-fighting abilities of human and animal cells.

Who is this man who caused President Bush, on record for his dislike of broccoli, to jokingly insist that the carrot is really "orange broccoli"?

Dr. Talalay was born in Germany in 1923 to Soviet Jewish parents. He spent his first 10 years in Germany where he grew up speaking Russian and German.

"My childhood coincided with the rise of Hitler and the German party," he said in between bites of his veal sandwich. "Since we were Jews, life was difficult."

The family moved to Belgium, France and then England, where he learned to speak English. The English schools, he said, sparked "my extraordinary interest in science."

His father decided to move the family to the United States in 1940. Dr. Talalay worked his way through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had a job in a research lab.

He then attended the University of Chicago medical school, where he came under the tutelage of Charles B. Huggins, who went on to win the 1966 Nobel Prize.

"He taught me all that I know about science and about how to do science," he said of Dr. Huggins.

Dr. Talalay lives in North Baltimore with his wife, Dr. Pamela Talalay, a neurology research associate at Hopkins. The couple have four children -- all of whom have decidedly unscientific careers.

They are Tony Talalay, a New York advertising executive; Susan Talalay, who runs a Washington-based program for foreign journalists; Sara Talalay, a newspaper reporter in Southern California, and Rachel Talalay, a Hollywood director whose last film was the final "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie.

But it took the broccoli study to thrust the low-key doctor, who has been at Hopkins since 1963, into the limelight. He isn't totally comfortable being there, and he stresses the study was "very much" a collaborative effort.

Although proud of his broccoli discovery, Dr. Talalay is tired of focusing on that one vegetable. What really excites him is his work in general.

"I've been interested in chemical protection against cancer for 15 years," Dr. Talalay said. "It is a field that is only now attracting a good deal of attention."

The doctor stressed that what he is working on should not be considered a treatment for cancer but a method of preventing the disease. "It is an active intervention," he said of the research. "It is reducing the susceptibility of cells to cancer-causing agents. Our strategy is to boost and raise the enzymes. We raise the levels of normally existing enzymes in our own tissue by using chemicals, some of which are normally present in our diet."

But there is just no getting around the green stuff: One way of boosting and raising those enzymes, he and his team discovered, is by eating broccoli and other vegetables such as brussels sprouts and kale.

"Everybody asks, 'How much should I eat?' We simply do not know that," Dr. Talalay said. "We are not making recommendations. All of the major agencies have already come out on that issue."

Indeed, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not taken a "disease-related position" on broccoli, it does acknowledge the health value of eating a lot of vegetables, said Leonard Genova, spokesman for the Baltimore office of the FDA.

Eating a nutritionally sound diet is one of the "positive things people can do to reduce cancer risk," said John Lough, a vice president at the American Institute for Cancer Research. "Just as eating right can help reduce the risk of heart disease, making the right dietary choices can lower our risk for many types of cancer."

No one disputes the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables, said Karen Collins, a registered dietitian who works with the institute and has a private practice.

"The biggest thing to do is to try to center meals around fruits, vegetables and grains," she said. "The research shows there are so many benefits it is astounding."

But there is more to lowering the risk of cancer, Dr. Talalay said.

"It should be a two-prong approach," he said. "Prevention and protection."

While protection is what his research is all about, prevention is the avoidance of carcinogenic practices.

"I don't want people smoking three packs of cigarettes a day then saying 'I can smoke another pack because I'm going to have my broccoli,' " he said.

Crucifers

Cruciferous vegetables, which are believed to have a chemical that lowers the risk of cancer, include:

* Broccoli

* Kale

* Cauliflower

* Brussels sprouts

* Collard greens

* Mustard greens

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