Can vitamin C cure sepsis?

An estimated 18,000 Australian adults are treated in ICUs for sepsis each year and around 5,000 of these people die. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Sepsis occurs when the immune system fails to fight off an underlying infection, causing life-threatening falls in blood pressure, shock, multiple organ failure, and death when not treated quickly
  • It accounts for 35–50% of all hospital deaths and impacts vulnerable people the most
  • The trial suggests an extremely high dose of sodium ascorbate resulted in full recovery from sepsis within three hours, with no side effects

Scientists have suggested a formulation containing huge doses of vitamin C can alleviate deadly sepsis.

Promising results from an initial clinical trial at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne by The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health scientists show that sodium ascorbate – a pH-balanced formulation of vitamin C – is effective in treating sepsis. 

In this trial, patients received a mega-dose of 270 grams of sodium ascorbate over 48 hours intravenously – the equivalent of about 5,000 oranges or 500 vitamin C tablets.

Lead investigator Associate Professor Yugeesh Lankadeva said sepsis is notoriously difficult to treat and is often deadly. Patients with sepsis are usually treated with medications such as antibiotics, which are not always effective if not provided immediately.

“In our trial at Austin Hospital, patients were given sodium ascorbate into their bloodstream, resulting in promising improvements to multiple organs,” he said.  

“[In the next part of the trial] We’ll recruit 300 adult septic patients to receive either our formulation or a placebo as well as normal hospital care. The results will help us gather data to determine the effectiveness of our formulation.”

Austin Hospital’s Director of Intensive Care Research Professor Rinaldo Bellomo said the previous part of the trial in his department involved 30 adult sepsis patients between October 2020 and November 2022. 

While receiving hospital intensive care, half the patients were randomly allocated to receive sodium ascorbate and the other half were given a placebo. 

The first part of the trial found that patients with sepsis who received the sodium ascorbate treatment:

  • Produced more urine, a sign of improved kidney function 
  • Required less of the clinically used drug, noradrenaline, to restore blood pressure
  • Showed signs of improved function in multiple organs 

“[Sepsis] often develops so quickly that patients are already critically ill by the time they reach us,” Professor Bellomo explained. 

“A treatment that acts quickly, is safe and highly effective would be an absolute game-changer.” 

Associate Professor Doctor Mark Plummer at the Royal Adelaide Hospital – where some of the trials are being conducted – discussed the world-leading trial at an RAHsearch presentation earlier this week. 

Dr Mark Plummer discussing the seriousness of sepsis. [Source: Central Adelaide Local Health Network]

He said, “Those that do survive [sepsis] often suffer long-term physical, cognitive and psychological dysfunction.”

“Using vitamin C to treat sepsis has had mixed results in previous studies, however, we believe a megadose of the vitamin C derivative, sodium ascorbate, may be the key to creating an effective treatment.”

While sodium ascorbate is derived from vitamin C, the treatment is delivered to the patient’s bloodstream – oral vitamins will not alleviate sepsis.

The next phase of the $4.9 million Government-funded research project is to start rolling out further across Australia next month, offered in intensive care units in Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, Alice Springs and Sydney. 

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