Vitamin A/retinol and maintenance of pluripotency of stem cells

Nutrients. 2014 Mar 21;6(3):1209-22. doi: 10.3390/nu6031209.


Retinol, the alcohol form of vitamin A is a key dietary component that plays a critical role in vertebrate development, cell differentiation, reproduction, vision and immune system. Natural and synthetic analogs of retinol, called retinoids, have generally been associated with the cell differentiation via retinoic acid which is the most potent metabolite of retinol. However, a direct function of retinol has not been fully investigated. New evidence has now emerged that retinol supports the self-renewal of stem cells including embryonic stem cells (ESCs), germ line stem cells (GSCs) and cancer stem cells (CSCs) by activating the endogenous machinery for self-renewal by a retinoic acid independent mechanism. The studies have also revealed that stem cells do not contain enzymes that are responsible for metabolizing retinol into retinoic acid. This new function of retinol may have important implications for stem cell biology which can be exploited for quantitative production of pure population of pluripotent stem cells for regenerative medicine as well as clinical applications for cancer therapeutics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult Stem Cells / cytology
  • Adult Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / cytology
  • Embryonic Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / cytology
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / cytology
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Vitamin A / pharmacology*


  • Vitamin A