SEP 01, 2016 11:29 AM PDT

Can Vitamin C Help Leukemia Patients Beat Cancer?

Health experts and nutritionists often tout the benefits of the vitamin C. Indeed this compound has even been explored as an anticancer agent for colon cancer. Now scientists at the Van Andel Research Institute reported that vitamin C supplements could enhance a drug’s ability to slow down cancer growth.

Supplementing leukemia drug with vitamin C shows promise | Image: The new data, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) showed that vitamin C supplementation along with the cancer drug decitabine (5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine) had positive, synergistic effects on cancer cell lines. In particular, cells treated with this combination had slower growth and more instances of cellular self-destruction.
Already, a small pilot clinical trial is ongoing based on the reported results. The clinical trial aims to treat patients with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) with the drug azacitidine supplemented with vitamin C.
"If the pilot trial is successful, we plan to pursue a larger trial to explore this strategy's potential as a straightforward and cost-effective way to improve the existing therapy for AML and MDS," said Peter Jones, co-senior author of the PNAS study.
The team noted that cancer patients are often deficient in vitamin C. They hope that raising the levels of this compound to normal levels would show the same synergistic effects for cancer patients.
Despite their hopes, the team is quick to note that vitamin c supplement should not be taken lightly, especially for cancer patients for whom proper nutrition is of great importance. "… we must urge patience and caution,” said Jones. “Only a clinical trial that combines azacitidine with the blinded addition of either vitamin C or a placebo will give the true answer as to whether or not vitamin C increases the efficacy of azacitidine in patients. We must emphasize that our trial is limited to a certain subset of patients with MDS or AML on a specific therapeutic regimen. We do not have evidence that this approach is appropriate for other cancers or chemotherapies." As such, they advise all patients to consult with their physicians before making any changes at all.
Of note, vitamin C has had a long stint with the medical community. In 1753, the compound was shown to ward off scurvy – a condition that was common among sailors at the time. Since then, vitamin C was purported to be effective against viruses like the common cold and the flu. However, the data behind these claims were weak and have never been fully substantiated. Still, people aren’t fazed – we still gulp down OJ at the first sign of a cold.
And so, vitamin C continues to be pursued by both scientists and the public as a source of treatment for our many ails. In the case of MDS and AML, if vitamin C could really boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy, then this will truly be a game-changer moment in medicine. "It is truly exciting to consider that there could be a simple and elegant approach to help patients fight MDS and AML. However, as a physician, I strongly urge patients to wait for the results of the clinical trial and to discuss all dietary and supplemental changes with their doctors,” said Kirsten Grønbæk, who is leading the clinical trial in Copenhagen.
Additional source: Van Andel Research Institute
About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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