Vitamin C has long been associated with maintaining a healthy immune system and warding off the common cold, but new research suggests the essential vitamin may also play a role in preventing leukemias, or blood cancers. Although we don’t yet know how much vitamin C is needed to do the job, or who would even benefit from such a treatment, researchers say they're excited to uncover some of the untapped benefits of the important vitamin.

Vitamin C deficits in the body may help contribute to leukemia, as the vitamin has been found to play a major role in the operation of bone marrow stem cells. Without enough vitamin C, these stem cells may produce blood cells at an accelerated rate, IFL Science reported. This increases the risk of developing blood cancer. While past research has identified a link between adequate levels of vitamin C and lower cancer risk, the mechanism behind this relationship was unclear. However, the new research suggests a biological reason for the protection—a finding that may one day lead to more effective cancer prevention and treatment.

"The epigenome is a set of mechanisms inside a cell that regulates which genes turn on and turn off," lead study author Dr. Michalis Agathocleous said in a Medical Xpress article. “So when stem cells don't receive enough vitamin C, the epigenome can become damaged in a way that increases stem cell function but also increases the risk of leukemia."

Studying the effects of Vitamin C on cancer has been difficult for two reasons. First, unlike most mammals, humans cannot create their own vitamin C, also known as ascorbate, IFL Science reported. In addition, it’s difficult to see what effect the vitamin has on our stem cells, as scientists struggle to observe stem cell metabolism in a lab setting.

However, in the current study, from Children's Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI), and published online in Nature, researchers were able to overcome both these hurdles, in part through using lab mice altered so that they did not synthesize their own vitamin C.

The study has a few limitations: At the moment, we don't know how much vitamin C is the ideal amount; we still aren’t sure which patients would benefit most from vitamin C; and if patients with other forms of cancer would be benefited. However, initial results suggest that vitamin C may be beneficial to patients with a form of leukemia known as clonal hematopoiesis.

Source: Agathocleous M, Meacham CE, Burgess RJ, et al. Ascorbate regulates haematopoietic stem cell function and leukaemogenesis. Nature . 2017