Vitamin C may be best known for its role in preventing the common cold, but Dr. Martin Hirst’s research suggests it may also reverse abnormal and potentially cancer causing changes to the epigenome, which is involved in regulating the expression of genes.
“Abnormal changes to the epigenome are associated with cancers such as acute myeloid leukemia (AML),” says Dr. Hirst, head of epigenomics at the BC Cancer Agency. “We have discovered that vitamin C directly regulates the machinery that maintains a normal epigenome.”
Dr. Hirst compares the genome to the hard drive and the epigenome to the software. The genome contains an organism’s entire DNA instructions, and the epigenome refers to the chemical changes of proteins and DNA that controls the genome’s activity.
His collaborative research suggests that vitamin C ‘turns-up’ the activity of an enzyme called TET that is recurrently ‘turned-down’ in AML through genetic mutation. Under specific circumstances, vitamin C may be able reverse some of the abnormal epigenomic changes in AML and provide therapeutic benefit.
AML typically has a poor long-term prognosis, particularly in adults. Dr. Hirst hopes that his research could lead to better therapeutics for patients.
“One of the issues with current chemotherapeutics or treatments in general is harmful off-target effects,” he says. “An increase in vitamin C shouldn’t have these detrimental impacts.”
BC Cancer Agency senior scientist Dr. Keith Humphries is Dr. Hirst’s mentor for the duration of his three-year award.
“Martin has gained, local, national, and international recognition for his many contributions,” says Dr. Humphries. “As the co-chair of the International Human Epigenome Consortium Scientific Steering Committee he is connected and respected by the epigenomics experts around the globe.”
“It’s extremely exciting, and I’m very honoured to be selected for this award,” says Dr. Hirst. “This is a very exciting time…we are only just beginning to understand how the epigenome is altered in specific cancers and unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic changes are potentially reversible, thus providing new opportunities to treat cancer."
Project Title: Epigenetic basis of acute myeloid leukemia
Award: $450,000 over three years
Mentoring Program: The Terry Fox New Frontiers Program Project Grant in Core Pathogenic Pathways in Human Leukemia
Mentors/PIs: Dr. Keith Humphries