Three recent studies show that vitamin C may enable genes to kill uncontrolled stem cells that cause leukemia, thereby giving the nutrient a role in cancer prevention. However, it takes more than a few oranges or vitamin C in tablet form to obtain this therapeutic effect. It requires intravenously administered vitamin C in large quantities. These doses have been used for decades and are known as redox therapy. Here, vitamin C works by entirely different mechanisms and effectively kill off cancer cells.
Stem cells are able to absorb incredibly large amounts of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which helps regulate stem cell functions and prevents the development of leukemia. This was seen in a recent study from Children’s Medical Center Research Institute UT Southwestern (CRI) in Texas, the United States.
Science has known for long that people with low levels of ascorbic acid are at an increased risk of developing cancer, yet researchers have not known why. With the new study, they have come one step further.
There is not much information available about stem cell metabolism because such an analysis requires many cells, and because the different tissues do not contain that many stem cells. However, a new technique used in the recent study has enabled the researchers to measure metabolic processes in rare cells like stem cells. The scientists discovered that each blood cell in the bone marrow has different metabolic processes and absorbs various nutrients in its own way. One of the mechanisms is to absorb unusually large amounts of ascorbic acid.
Facts about stem cells and leukemia
Lack of ascorbic acid causes stem cells to run amok
In order to study the process more closely and determine if ascorbic acid is vital for stem cell functions, the scientists used mice that lacked gulonolactone oxidase (Gulo), an enzyme that most mammals (but not humans) use to produce their own ascorbic acid. The mice, in other words, were unable to synthesize ascorbic acid and therefore depended on getting the vitamin from their diet.
That way, the scientists were able to compare mice and humans with respect to ascorbic acid. The investigators anticipated that the mice that lacked ascorbic acid would have impaired stem cell function, but it turned out to be the opposite: Their stem cells ran amok, and in many cases, they developed leukemia.
Facts about vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Ascorbic acid controls stem cell genes
According to Dr. Machalis Agathocleous, who headed the study, stem cells use ascorbic acid to control different types of cellular DNA activation. This is better known as epigenome and includes a set of intra-cellular mechanisms that either switch on or off specific genes. If stem cells get too little ascorbic acid, it may disrupt the epigenome in such a way that it speeds up stem cell functions and increases the risk of leukemia.
Ascorbic acid influences an important gene
The researchers at CRI in Texas revealed that lack of ascorbic acid inhibits a human gene called Tet2, which is needed for normal stem cell development. Lack of ascorbic acid may therefore cause mutations that inactivate this gene and lead to the early stages of leukemia.
It has puzzled scientists that some patients with early stages of blood cancer develop leukemia, while others do not. According to the study, lack of ascorbic acid may be the determining factor. The researchers recommend that patients make sure to get 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C. In the future, scientists plan to take a closer look at how ascorbic acid affects stem cell functions and the degeneration of cells and tissues.
Other studies confirm that ascorbic acid can kill of blood cancer cells
A more recent study that was carried out by scientists at Pearlmutter Cancer Center in the USA shows how ascorbic acid helps stem cells in the bone marrow develop and die normally, rather than dividing rapidly and causing blood cancer.
The researchers have even found mutations in the Tet2 gene in 10 per cent of patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), in 30 per cent of patients with pre-leukemia (also known as myelodysplastic syndrome), and in nearly 50 per cent of patients with chronic myelomonocytic leukemia.
These forms of cancer cause anemia and increase the risk of infections and bleeding, while the abnormal stem cells divide in the bone marrow before entering the blood.
The scientists also looked closer at the relation between the Tet2 gene and cytosine, which is one of the four nucleic acids that represent the DNA codes in our genes.
Ascorbic acid is important for the Tet2 gene so that stem cells can function normally.
Mutations in the Tet2 gene are involved in around 42,000 cases of cancer every year in the US alone.
Vitamin C injections counteract leukemia and improve the outcome of chemotherapy
Luisa Cimino and Benjamin Neel at the New York University School of Medicine have also observed how mice with mutations in the Tet2 gene are at increased risk of uncontrollable stem cell division that may lead to cancer. They took their research a step further by giving daily ascorbic acid injections for 24 weeks to the mice with low Tet2 activity. The researchers found that these injections prevented leukemia from developing. Toward the end of the study period, the control group consisting of non-injected mice had three times as many white blood cells, which is a sign of pre-leukemia.
When the scientists exposed human cancer cells to chemotherapy, they also found improved results when they combined the chemotherapy with ascorbic acid.
Eating oranges is not enoug
Luisa Cimino and Benjamin Neel hope for the integration of high-quantity ascorbic acid in conventional cancer therapies. Patients with acute myeloid leukemia are often older, and they may die from chemotherapy exposure or from undernourishment because they feel nauseous and have no appetite. That way, ascorbic acid combined with chemotherapy may improve their chances of surviving.
According to Benjamin Neel, however, with ascorbic acid it is impossible to reach therapeutic dosages by dietary means. The mice got 100 milligrams of ascorbic acid with each injection, which corresponds with the content in two oranges. However, a human weighs up to 3,000 times more than a mouse, and because we humans can only absorb a certain amount of ascorbic acid, it is necessary to inject the vitamin so it is able to enter the blood directly and reach the cells.
Redox therapy with ascorbic acid kills off cancer cells by means of other mechanisms
In a previous study that is published in Redox Biology, Buettner and his team of researchers reveal that injections of ascorbic acid kill off cancer cells by means of other mechanisms. In a type of treatment called redox, around 100 grams of ascorbic acid are injected into patients over a two-hour period. An amount of ascorbic acid that size generates hydrogen peroxide that functions like free radicals by harming cells and DNA. Hydrogen peroxide is also a byproduct of cellular energy turnover but cancer cells, in contrast to normal healthy cells, have difficulty with breaking down the harmful hydrogen peroxide because they have lower levels of an enzyme called catalase. That makes cancer cells more vulnerable and they tend to die off when exposed to the enormous amounts of hydrogen peroxide that intravenously administered ascorbic acid generates. That way, ascorbic acid is like a natural form of chemotherapy that does not have side effects, simply because it takes advantage of the difference between cancer cells and normal cells.
Catalase activity as a guideline for cancer therapy
According to Buettner, cancer cells with low catalase levels seem to be more vulnerable to high doses of ascorbic acid, while cancer cells with higher catalase activity are less vulnerable. By measuring catalase levels in a cancer patient’s tumor, it is possible to predict if it is likely that the higher doses of ascorbic acid will have a positive effect.
Redox therapy has been used for decades – even by some Danish physicians
Redox therapy with high doses of ascorbic acid given intravenously has been used for over 30 years with positive outcome. In Denmark, redox treatments are only used by very few private practitioners and specialists, and their therapy also includes antioxidant supplementation and dietary adjustments.
Nonetheless, all the new research results contribute to a better understanding of the many applications of ascorbic acid in public health, and the importance in getting enough of this essential vitamin.
Prevention and a simple calculation
It is important to get enough vitamin C every day, as the nutrient has a host of functions in the body. Fruit and vegetables are good sources. The daily reference intake level (RI) is approx. 80 mg but some people may need more. In order to get the same amount of ascorbic acid as you get from one 750 mg tablet, you would have to consume 12 oranges or 53 apples
Choose non-acidic supplements
Ascorbates are salts of ascorbic acid and are used in non-acidic supplements with sodium ascorbate or calcium ascorbate. Non-acidic supplements are gentler toward the gastrointestinal mucosa.
Scientists discover vitamin C regulates stem cell function, curbs leukemia development
Vitamin C may encourage blood cancer stem cells to die
Vitamin C may encourage blood cancer stem cells to die – ScienceDaily
Vitamin C Blocks Leukemia Progression in Mice | The Scientist Magazine®
Vitamin C helps genes to kill off cells that would cause cancer | New Scientist
Claire M Doskey et al. Why high-dose vitamin C kills cancer cells. ScienceDaily. 2017
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