Vitamin D and Cancer

A report issued earlier this year (available on Medscape once you register) on Vitamin D levels in breast cancer, identified low levels of this nutritional factor as a risk for breast cancer. Dr. Kristin Skinner reported at the American Association of Breast Surgeons, that the most aggressive forms of breast cancer (i.e. ER negative, triple negative or basal-like) were associated with lower blood levels of vitamin D.

This is one of many reports associating vitamin D levels with disease. Indeed, so many reports on this topic have been published that vitamin D consumption in the U.S. has exploded. While some physicians have made careers promoting the concept, the science of vitamin D is indeed credible and very interesting.

What is vitamin D? Well, although we refer to it as a vitamin, it is, in fact, a hormone. It is obtained from the diet or from exposure to sun. The most potent form of vitamin D is that associated with sunlight exposure. Once in the body, vitamin D interacts with cells at very specific receptors. The term receptor reflects the role of these “landing sites” contained within the cell’s nucleus. As the vitamin D molecule traverses the cell membrane and enters the cell nucleus, it binds with the vitamin D receptor, which connects to the chromosome at a hormone response element and drives the cell machinery forward.

The vitamin D receptor is part of a large collection of genes called the steroid super gene family. These include receptors for estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and, yes, vitamin D.

What makes the field so interesting is the interaction between these factors. Inside the nucleus are a large variety of receptors. Vitamin D and the other molecules are known as ligands. When the ligands enter the nucleus, they must compete for receptors. This leads to a complicated collection of down-stream events that are unique to the individual. If, for example, your nucleus has a number of orphan receptors (receptors with unclear ligand associations) and these orphan receptors have some binding affinity for the vitamin D, then the down-stream signaling will reflect this new biology.

Many studies have associated vitamin D levels with disease. Prostate cancer, colon cancer, even blood-born tumors may, in part, arise in vitamin D deficient states. But, the most compelling evidence in several analyses supports its protective effect against colon cancer. In one study there was a 15 percent risk reduction for every 10 ug/ml increase in circulating blood levels of calciferol (Gandini S, Int J Cancer. March 11, 2011). What is interesting about the report from the University of Rochester is that it was the most aggressive forms of breast cancer that were found to be associated with Vitamin D deficiency. To date, the correlations with the more common forms of breast cancer have been less positive.

Cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal diseases are also associated with vitamin D levels. So critical is vitamin D to the well-being of the human that mankind could not easily migrate far north from the equator until he found a source of vitamin D unrelated to the skin synthesis. This source proved to be fish and animals that survived by eating fish. Older readers will remember cod liver oil as a remedy doled out by grandparents. It is ironic that cod liver oil is an excellent source of vitamin D.

While deficiencies of vitamin D are likely to be deleterious, substantially exceeding the normal levels of 30 micrograms/ml have not been shown to further enhance health. It is prudent for patients to monitor their vitamin D levels and highly appropriate for physicians to recommend replacement. Interestingly, a scientific colleague recently commented that sun exposure, by providing active vitamin D, is greatly under appreciated as a healthful activity. He wondered whether the broad use of sunscreens would ultimately save or cost more lives when the aggregate impact of vitamin D levels upon cancer and health is finally understood.