Scientists Discover Vitamin C Regulates Stem Cell Function, Curbs Leukemia Development

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Scientists Discover Vitamin C Regulates Stem Cell Function, Curbs Leukemia Development
Scientists Discover Vitamin C Regulates Stem Cell Function
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Stem cell research is highly controversial because “harvesting” them usually entails the use of human embryos, which are abundant in stem cells. Religious controversies aside, stem cells have played a very big role in health care and the treatment of various diseases, among them leukemia. Leukemia is a form of cancer that affects the blood, wherein cancer cells affect the bone marrow and lymphatic system — the parts of the body that produce our blood cells. Worldwide, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society estimates that close to 180,000 people in the US will be diagnosed with a form of blood cancer each year, with leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma responsible for more than 10 percent of new cancer cases in the same year. [1][2][3] Is there anything more we can do about this tragedy?

How Vitamin C Affects Stem Cells

We have all heard the vital role vitamin C or ascorbic acid plays in immunity. Because of the vitamin’s ability to boost the immune system, it is a very popular supplement – either as a tablet or capsule or fruits and vegetables. However, research from UT Southwestern has found a link between vitamin C and stem cells, which could answer the question why people who have lower levels of ascorbate in their body have been found to be at a greater risk for developing cancer. [4]

Agathocleous, et. al. published their research in August 2017 in the Nature Journal, which reports that “ascorbate regulated hematopoietic stem cell function and leukemogenesis”. The researchers used stem cells from humans and mice and did different comparative analyses. They discovered that samples from the test subjects that were depleted of ascorbate had poorly functioning TET2, a tumor suppressor gene that is part of the body’s defense system. On the other hand, samples from test subjects with higher levels of ascorbate had better functioning TET2. Not only that, the researchers also found that stem cells naturally absorb high levels of ascorbate, which contributed to how TET2 was expressed in the test subject.

So what role does TET2 play in leukemia? TET2 genetic mutation has been found to be a prognostic factor in patients with leukemia, specifically AML or acute myeloid leukemia. While low ascorbate levels were not seen to affect the function of the stem cells themselves, how they affected TET2 (specifically how low levels could cause TET2 dysfunction and possible mutation) was main reason for an increased susceptibility to leukemia.

Risks For Monoclonal Genetic Malformations

Particularly, Agathocleous, et. al.’s study suggest that low ascorbate was worse for people with genetic problems like clonal hematopoiesis, specifically monoclonal gammopathy wherein there is only one copy of the TET2 gene. In cases like that, low ascorbate levels can easily mutate the gene and cause leukemia — compared to healthy individuals with two copies of TET2, and mutation of both copies would be needed to display the severe symptoms of leukemia. In fact, Dr. Becker reports that people affected with monoclonal genetic malformations could experience opportunistic leukemia, wherein chemotherapy could actually mutate the single copy of a gene and cause the worsening of AML or MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome). Agathocleous, et. al. advice people with clonal hematopoiesis to have adequate levels of vitamin C in order to boost the abilities of their singular TET2 gene and protect themselves from increased leukemia risk. [5]


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[1] National Institutes of Health. Stem Cell Information.

[2] Mayo Clinic. Leukemia.

[3] Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Facts and Statistics.

[4] Agathocleous, M., et. al. (2017). Ascorbate regulates haematopoietic stem cell function and leukaemogenesis.

[5] Becker, P. (2016). Clonal Hematopoiesis: The Seeds of Leukemia or Innocuous Bystander?

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