Researchers to study vitamin C as treatment for septic lung injury

Investigators from four institutions to collaborate on $3.2 million NIH grant

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Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University will lead a multicenter $3.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to study whether high doses of vitamin C can effectively treat septic lung injury resulting from infection. The VCU team will collaborate with colleagues from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the University of Virginia and Emory University to begin phase 2 clinical trials.

Sepsis is caused by the immune system’s response to a serious infection and is characterized by systemic inflammation, organ dysfunction and organ failure. Four out of 10 septic patients develop lung injury. Despite modern advances in critical care, one-third to half of all severely septic patients die, resulting in millions of deaths globally each year.

“When patients are septic, their bodies lose the ability to control blood pressure,” said Alpha (Berry) Fowler III, M.D., chair of the Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine and professor of internal medicine in the VCU School of Medicine. “We wanted to see if vitamin C could help to control the pressure. We found that in preclinical studies, vitamin C prevented the inflammatory response in sepsis. We continued our work with a small clinical trial to study the safety of giving high doses of vitamin C to septic patients. We did not see any side effects from the vitamin C.”

The small phase 1 safety trial showed that patients receiving the high doses of vitamin C, infused intravenously, had significantly improved outcomes with lower rates of mortality, but larger studies are needed. In July, the investigators were awarded the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) grant to continue with a phase 2, or proof of concept, trial. This trial, which will begin with patients early next year, will evaluate vitamin C in the patient population and determine efficacy.

“We are looking to test vitamin C as an intervention for early lung injury due to sepsis. Our goal is to enroll about 170 patients among the four research sites in the next two to three years,” Fowler said. “This research is important because the current standard of care doesn’t work and it is expensive. We’re hopeful that vitamin C might be an effective intervention that will save lives.”