Significance: Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, has long been known to participate in several important functions in the vascular bed in support of endothelial cells. These functions include increasing the synthesis and deposition of type IV collagen in the basement membrane, stimulating endothelial proliferation, inhibiting apoptosis, scavenging radical species, and sparing endothelial cell-derived nitric oxide to help modulate blood flow. Although ascorbate may not be able to reverse inflammatory vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, it may well play a role in preventing the endothelial dysfunction that is the earliest sign of many such diseases.
Recent advances: Beyond simply preventing scurvy, evidence is mounting that ascorbate is required for optimal function of many dioxygenase enzymes in addition to those involved in collagen synthesis. Several of these enzymes regulate the transcription of proteins involved in endothelial function, proliferation, and survival, including hypoxia-inducible factor-1α and histone and DNA demethylases. More recently, ascorbate has been found to acutely tighten the endothelial permeability barrier and, thus, may modulate access of ascorbate and other molecules into tissues and organs.
Critical issues: The issue of the optimal cellular content of ascorbate remains unresolved, but it appears that low millimolar ascorbate concentrations are normal in most animal tissues, in human leukocytes, and probably in the endothelium. Although there may be little benefit of increasing near maximal cellular ascorbate concentrations in normal people, many diseases and conditions have either systemic or localized cellular ascorbate deficiency as a cause for endothelial dysfunction, including early atherosclerosis, sepsis, smoking, and diabetes.
Future directions: A key focus for future studies of ascorbate and the vascular endothelium will likely be to determine the mechanisms and clinical relevance of ascorbate effects on endothelial function, permeability, and survival in diseases that cause endothelial dysfunction.