Vitamin C could play an essential role in the manufacture of stem cells for treating human diseases, new research suggests.
The vitamin boosts the reprogramming of adult cells to give them the properties of embryonic stem cells.
Scientists who made the discovery believe it may help them overcome long-standing hurdles in the way of creating the reprogrammed cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
IPSCs offer a solution to the ethical problems involved in producing embryonic stem cells with the potential to become any kind of human tissue, from bone to brain.
Embryonic stem cells have to be extracted by cannibalising early stage embryos obtained from fertility clinics. IPSCs, on the other hand, are made in the laboratory from ordinary adult cells by altering their genes.
Many experts believe iPSCs are the future of stem cell medicine, since they behave in a similar way to embryonic stem cells and are also capable of developing into a wide range of tissues.
The conversion of ordinary cells into iPSCs is highly inefficient and difficult to achieve. Often the cells age prematurely and stop dividing or may die, a process known as senescence.
Adding vitamin C to the cell cultures was found to hold back senescence and make reprogramming much more efficient.
Experiments with both mouse and human cells showed that the vitamin accelerated genetic changes and boosted the transition to a reprogrammed state.
Dr Duanqing Pei, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou, who led the research, said: "The low efficiency of the reprogramming process has hampered progress with this technology and is indicative of how little we understand it.
"Further, this process is most challenging in human cells, raising a significant barrier for producing iPSCs and serious concerns about the quality of the cells that are generated.
"Our results highlight a simple way to improve iPSC generation and provide additional insight into the mechanistic basis of reprogramming.
"It is also of interest that a vitamin with long-suspected anti-ageing effects has such a potent influence on reprogramming, which can be considered a reversal of the ageing process at the cellular level. It is likely that our work may stimulate further research in this area as well."
The research is published online in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
Vitamin C's powerful antioxidant properties may be the reason why it assists cell programming, the scientists believe.
The vitamin neutralises damaging molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are believed to hamper the generation of iPSCs.
But this cannot be the whole story, since other antioxidants do not appear to have the same effect.