Researchers say that the findings could further their understanding of how epigenetic changes are made to the genome.
Stem cells can potentially be turned into any other cell in the body, and this is the goal of regenerative medicine. But to create these stem cells, the original adult cell (e.g. a skin cell) must first have its identity reset. This means that the epigenetic tags it has picked up throughout its life must be erased.
In this study, researchers showed that vitamins A and C work together to help remove DNA methylation tags. 'We found that both vitamins affect the same family of enzymes, which actively remove DNA methylation,' said Dr Tim Hore of the University of Otago, New Zealand, who was co-lead author of the study. 'It turns out that vitamin A increases the number of these enzymes within the cell, and vitamin C enhances their activity.'
Vitamin A and C are already used to convert adult cells into stem cells in the laboratory, but this study shows how this process works on a molecular level.
'This research provides an important understanding in order to progress the development of cell treatments for regenerative medicine,' said Professor Wolf Reik, head of the epigenetics programme at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, which was also involved in the study. 'It also enhances our understanding of how intrinsic and extrinsic signals shape the epigenome – knowledge that could provide valuable insight into human disease, such as acute promyelocytic leukaemia and other cancers. Putting the full picture together will allow us to understand the full complexity of the epigenetic control of the genome.'