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Vitamin C May Play Role in Embryo Heart Development

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BOSTON–Vitamin C may be key in the development of embryonic heart tissue, according to stem cell research released online in a March 31 “rapid track” publication before it appears in a print edition of the American Heart Association’s Circulation (circ.ahajournals.org).

Richard T. Lee, M.D., a professor of medicine at Boston’s Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study, indicated his team’s research may lead to the possibility of more efficiently creating heart cells from stem cells.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into any cell found in the body through a process known as differentiation. In an attempt to encourage the production of heart cells, Lee and his colleagues treated mouse stem cells with 880 bioactive substances, including vitamins and drugs. Only ascorbic acid effectively and consistently induced the stem cells to develop into heart tissue.

Researchers found that vitamin C stimulated the growth of cardiac myosin and actin, proteins involved in relaxing and contracting muscle. They also noted three other heart-muscle genes that activated in sequence, and the differentiated cells were found to beat spontaneously and rhythmically.

While vitamin C induced stem cells to become heart cells, vitamin E did not, suggesting vitamin C acted by some other mechanism than an antioxidant effect. “[This study] raises interesting questions about the role of vitamin C in the development of the embryo’s heart,” Lee said. “A really big issue is going to be whether we can encourage the heart to fix itself, or whether we will need to implant cells of some sort. That is an important and unresolved question for this century, given the prevalence of heart failure.”

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