Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern researchers have discovered that stem cells absorb “unusually high” levels of vitamin C, which reportedly regulate function and suppress the development of leukemia.
While research currently shows people with lower levels of vitamin C are at increased risk for cancer, this study indicated why vitamin C is inherently important for the blood-forming system by routinely measuring metabolite levels in stem cell populations.
The techniques used in the study led researchers to find that “every type of blood-forming cell in the bone marrow had distinct metabolic signatures—taking up and using nutrients in their own individual way.” To further understand vitamin C’s importance in stem cell function, researchers tested mice that lacked the enzyme used to synthesize vitamin C in order to see its effects when added.
According to the research, scientists controlled the vitamin C intake on mice so that they could only obtain the supplement “exclusively through their diet, like humans do.” They tested mice absorbing vitamin C levels seen in 5 percent of healthy humans. To the researchers’ surprise, the depletion of vitamin C meant the stem cells gained function, but also increased the mice’s chances of leukemia.
Dr. Michalis Agathocleous, lead author of the study, said stem cells use vitamin C to regulate chemical modifications on DNA, which turn genes on and off. “When stem cells don’t receive enough vitamin C, these [DNA-regulating mechanisms] can become damaged in a way that increases stem cell function but also increases the risk of leukemia.” Thus, if humans take up more vitamin C than normal, this will regulate and stabilize stem cell function and suppress the chances to develop leukemia.
Researchers plan to use the techniques to find other metabolic pathways that control stem cell function and cancer development, and further explore vitamin C’s role in stem cell function and tissue regeneration.