There are continual advances in science (as well as always some controversy), but new research supporting vitamin C's potential in preventing the advancement of several forms of cancer is some of the most promising and remarkable that's emerged in a while.
More specifically, vitamin C may stop leukemia stem cells from multiplying, which could prevent certain forms of blood cancer from advancing, the journal Cell reveals,1 along with pancreatic, colon, liver and ovarian cancers, according to several other notable medical journals and scientific reports.
An enzyme known as Tet methylcytosine dioxygenase 2 (TET2) has the ability to make stem cells "morph" into mature, normal blood cells that will eventually expire like normal cells. Stem cells, the study explains, are "undifferentiated cells that have not yet gained a specific identity and function."2
This ability helps patients with some blood cancers, including acute and chronic leukemia, because their stem cells haven't been directed to mature, per se. The cancer cells can regenerate and "self-renew" over and over, subsequently blocking the body's ability to produce normal white blood cells, which everyone needs in their immune systems to fight infection; some scientists call them "faulty" cells.3
Scientists found that a 50 percent decrease in TET2 activity can be enough to induce cancer, but it must remain low for the disease to keep advancing. New Scientist says mutations in TET2 are involved in around 42,500 cancers in the U.S. a year.4 About 13,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS, sometimes referred to as preleukemia) and about 20,000 are diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) every year.5
Lead author Luisa Cimmino, Ph.D. assistant professor in the department of pathology at New York University's Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center, explained that some leukemia patients have a genetic mutation that decreases the TET2 enzyme in their bodies, to varying percentages:
- AML — 10 percent
- MDS — 30 percent
- Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CML) — 50 percent
How Did Scientists Approach Testing Vitamin C as a Leukemia Remedy?
The above statistics, as well as previous research, sparked Cimmino and her cohorts to see if they could stimulate the TET2 enzyme genetically using vitamin C. According to Medical News Today:
"The researchers genetically engineered mice to lack the enzyme, having designed mouse models with the TET2 gene 'switched on' and 'off.' When the gene was off, the researchers found that stem cells started to malfunction. When the researchers turned the gene back on, these malfunctions were reversed.
It was known to the researchers that, in leukemia and other blood diseases that depend on TET2 genetic malfunctions, only one of the two copies of the TET2 gene is altered. So, they hypothesized that a high dose of vitamin C administered intravenously might compensate for the faulty copy of the gene by amplifying the action of the copy that still functions normally."6
When very high doses of vitamin C were added every day for 24 weeks, the progression of leukemia slowed down. In short, it worked. In fact, pathologist Iannis Aifantis noted, "We saw that that stops the growth."7 The vitamin C treatment also had an effect on leukemic stem cells that resembled DNA damage, Cimmino added.8 By the end of the mice injection portion of the study, the control group that got no vitamin C injections had three times the number of white blood cells, indicating pre-leukemia. New Scientist further explained:
"[Dr. Benjamin] Neel, [director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center,] hopes that high doses of vitamin C will eventually be incorporated into cancer therapies. People who have acute myeloid leukemia are often of advanced age, and may die from chemotherapy. Vitamin C in combination with cancer drugs may provide an alternative approach."9
They discovered high-dose vitamin C had the ability to stimulate a genetic mechanism to activate TET2 function via another mechanism called DNA demethylation, which kick-starts the genes that inform stem cells to mature and die as they should. A similar study even described high doses of vitamin C as "compensating" for TET2 mutations and restoring normal function, which is remarkable because transformation of normal cells into leukemic cells is usually irreversible.
Researchers: 'Where Do We Go From Here?'
For leukemia patients with the abovementioned genetic mutations, this research offers hope that intravenous treatment with vitamin C will be a key to unlock DNA demethylation, especially since in simultaneous clinical trials, the same therapy successfully stopped leukemia cancer stem cells the researchers transplanted to mice from human patients from growing in the mice. The researchers didn't stop there. They went on to find out if combining vitamin C with a class of anticancer drugs would boost its effectiveness.
The cancer drugs are called PARP inhibitors, a drug type that Cimmino explained is known to cause cancer cell death, aka apoptosis, by blocking the repair of DNA damage and is already approved for treating some ovarian cancer patients. When they implemented the combo therapy of vitamin C with the PARP inhibitors, they found that the effectiveness of the vitamin C actually increased, which further inhibited leukemia cells from being able to multiply. Neel further explained:
"Our results suggest that high-dose vitamin C — and it's important to note that this means doses that have to be administered intravenously — might have therapeutic benefit in TET2-mutant myelodysplastic syndrome, either alone or in combination with current demethylating therapies and/or PARP inhibitors."10
Neel added that clinical trials may also indicate that vitamin C with or without PARP inhibitors might also be helpful for patients with acute myeloid leukemia, also known as "TET2 mutant" leukemia and, in addition, another colleague planned vitamin C testing for acute myeloid leukemia cases considered intermediate and high risk.
Beyond that, some of the team members are said to be planning further research into vitamin C therapies combined with PARP inhibitors in additional models of acute myeloid leukemia for both preclinical studies and for primary patient samples, as well as other agents that might be synergetic with vitamin C.
Danish Research Into Vitamin C for Cancer Treatments
In mid-2016, scientists at Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported that a similar therapy using vitamin C in combination with another drug, decitabine, "enhanced the drug's ability to impede cancer cell growth and trigger cellular self-destruction in cancer cell lines," according to Science Daily.11 The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.12
Additionally, at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, a pilot clinical trial based on the above findings is underway, with the help of adult patients suffering from MDS or AML. The trial is combining vitamin C with azacitidine, a similar drug that doctors assert is the "standard of care therapy." As Science Daily put it, "Many cancer patients are deficient in vitamin C; the proposed approach seeks to correct this deficiency rather than overload patients with the vitamin."13
Co-senior study author Peter Jones, Ph.D., also scientific officer at Van Andel Research Institute and co-leader of the Van Andel Research Institute-Stand Up To Cancer Epigenetics Dream Team, said that if the pilot is successful, the scientists plan to implement a larger trial to investigate the potential of the vitamin C strategy, not only because it's "straightforward" but also because it's a cost-effective strategy for improving existing AML and MDS therapy.
Jones noted, however, that caution would be necessary because there's no evidence a similar approach would work for other types of cancer or chemotherapy. However, other studies contend that combined with nutritional ketosis and fasting prior to administering chemo, vitamin C radically improves the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Science Daily went on to explain that such combination therapies are becoming more common:
"Particularly when it comes to epigenetic approaches, which target the mechanisms that control whether genes are switched 'on' or 'off.' In cancer, these switches inappropriately activate or silence important genes, such as those that regulate cell growth and life cycle, ultimately leading to tumors.
Epigenetic therapies are thought to work in two ways to fix these errors in cancer cells — by correcting the 'position' of the gene switches and by making the cell appear as though it's infected by a virus, triggering the immune system."14
More to Consider Regarding Vitamin C for Cancer Studies
The Stem Cellar (the California Stem Cell Agency's official blog) refers to a study conducted at UT Southwestern and published in Nature15 when quoting San Diego Tribune's science reporter Bradley Fikes, who outlined the study's finding:
"[H]uman and mouse hematopoietic stem cells absorb unusually large amounts of vitamin C. When the cells were depleted of vitamin C, they were more likely to turn into leukemia cells."16
Sean Morrison, principal author of the Nature study, learned two interesting things: One, that in mice, "super doses" of vitamin C didn't help further reduce leukemia risk, so finding the right dosage is important. Second, vitamin C is a limiting factor in the function of TET2, because "people have two copies of the gene, one from each parent. When one of the genes is disabled, it's important to take the full recommended dose of vitamin C so the remaining gene can exert its full tumor-suppressing effect."17
Morrison added that while not all cancers grow or multiply when vitamin C is depleted, they're fairly certain that certain leukemias do. But it's something researchers are still exploring.
Scientists: Eating a Lot of Oranges Won't Have the Same Effect
Neel specified that eating a lot of oranges is not going to have the same effects on blood cancers that this therapy will it won't prevent everyone from getting cancer and high doses of vitamin C for humans will "most likely [be given] in combination with other targeted therapies."18 He explained:
"The mice were given 100 milligrams of vitamin C in each injection, the equivalent of about two oranges. But the average person weighs about 3,000 times as much as a mouse. Because the body stops taking in the vitamin after around 500 milligrams, any therapies would need to supply vitamin C intravenously."19
However, as I've said before, vitamin C is a very useful supplement that should be part of most cancer treatment protocols. While the only way to get the extremely high amounts of vitamin C into your blood as these studies describe is via intravenous application — which results in blood levels up to 500 times higher than what you can achieve through the oral route — eating foods high in vitamin C and taking liposomal vitamin C supplementation may help.
It should be noted that while oranges are the foods most people think of first as having the highest amount of vitamin C, that's not actually the case. Here are other foods that will prime your body with even more healthy amounts of this vitamin, according to Health.com20: