Researchers from the University of East Anglia found sulforaphane - a compound found in broccoli, sprouts and cabbage - slows down the destruction of cartilage in joints associated with osteoarthritis.
Ian Clark, professor of musculoskeletal biology at the Norwich university, said: "The results are very promising. We have shown this works in the three laboratory models we have tried.
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"We want to show this works in humans. It would be very powerful if we could."
More than 8.5 million people in the UK have osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease affecting the hands, feet, spine, hips and knees.
Aging and obesity are the most common contributors and it is thought the number of people seeking treatment will rise sharply by 2035.
Alan Silman, Arthritis Research UK's medical director, said: "If these findings can be replicated in humans, it would a breakthrough."