Vitamin C may help fight ovarian cancer, expert says, but who will pay?

February 7, 2014 | by

Despite vitamin C's well-known antioxidant properties, multiple clinical trials since the 1970s have found it ineffective as a cancer treatment. Thus, vitamin C has been largely ignored by conventional oncology and is usually offered only in alternative/complementary practices.

A glass of OJ a day may not help against cancer, but researchers found that high-doses of intravenous vitamin C can enhance chemotherapy's effectiveness against ovarian cancer.

A glass of OJ a day may not help against cancer, but researchers found that high-doses of intravenous vitamin C can enhance chemotherapy's effectiveness against ovarian cancer.

However, an article published in the Feb. 5 issue of Science Translational Medicine may reinvigorate research for this nutrient. The study found that vitamin C, when administered intravenously, induces cancer cell death without harming normal tissues. And in animal models, vitamin C made ovarian cancer cells more sensitive to the chemotherapy drugs carboplatin and paclitaxel.

Additionally, in an early-phase clinical trial involving 27 patients, those receiving vitamin C in addition to standard chemotherapy were less likely to experience toxic side effects. The finding suggests that vitamin C may have potential in helping patients tolerate higher and more powerful doses of chemotherapy.

"With enhanced understanding of [vitamin C's] anticancer action presented here, plus a clear safety profile, biological and clinical plausibility have a firm foundation," the study's authors wrote, adding that these findings justify larger clinical trials to investigate vitamin C's effectiveness in enhancing conventional chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

However, actual further study of this nutrient is another matter, according to Robert Morgan, M.D., co-director of City of Hope's gynecological oncology program.

Providing external commentary to the Los Angeles TimesMorgan said that "the issue with any type of cancer research is who’s going to pay for it ... Pharma does it because they expect ultimately to find a drug that’s effective, helps patients and will make a profit for their shareholders. [Vitamin C] is the kind of a drug that if somebody invested in it, they would not expect to make back their investment.”

Further, the decades-long stigma against vitamin C cancer studies could scare off research funding sources.

Here, at least, the government could provide recourse. Jeffrey White, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCI OCCAM), said the findings explain much about vitamin C's effect on ovarian cancer cells. He said future studies are warranted, opening the possibility of a grant to fund such research.

And although vitamin C may not be offered anytime soon as part of standard cancer treatment, patients should feel open to discuss complementary and alternative medicine therapies — and clinical trials involving them — with their health care providers.

For help initiating and continuing this conversation, consider using NCI OCCAM's workbook "Talking about Complementary and Alternative Medicine with Health Care Providers", which is downloadable and printable from their website.