Revealed: how vitamin D can protect us from cancer

Scientists discover how substance controls actions of genes

Vitamin D protects the body against a range of serious illnesses by binding to the DNA of the body's cells and directly controlling the genes implicated in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and cancer, a study suggests.

It is the first time that scientists have found direct evidence to suggest that the "sunshine vitamin", which is made by the skin in the presence of sunlight, directly controls a network of genes linked with a wide variety of serious disorders.

Although previous studies have linked vitamin D deficiency with a growing list of illnesses, especially the autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type-1 diabetes, until now scientists have not been able to show how it could trigger so many different disorders.

The latest study suggests a possible mechanism by showing that vitamin D binds directly to parts of the human genome that house the genes known to be linked with these serious autoimmune disorders, which result from a person's immune system attacking the body's own tissues.

"A surprisingly large number of genes that have been highlighted by gene-associated studies in autoimmunity and cancer seem to be regulated by vitamin D," said Professor George Ebers, a clinical neurologist at the Radcliffe hospital in Oxford.

"This is indirect, but intriguing evidence that vitamin D will prove to be a major player in the key gene-environment interactions that expose us to diseases," Professor Ebers said.

It is estimated that a billion people in the world could be suffering from deficiencies in vitamin D, which can be ingested in the diet in small amounts but is primarily produced by the skin when exposed to direct sunlight, so the findings could have major health implications for people living in northern latitudes with low levels of sunlight.

The researchers, funded by the Wellcome Trust, analysed human cells that had been stimulated by the active form of vitamin D. They found that the vitamin D receptor protein bonded to a total of 2,776 sites along the DNA of the genome. They also found that the vitamin had a significant effect on altering the activity of 229 genes located near to these sites.

"We screened the whole genome and found all the sites where vitamin D binds. The evidence is now quite solid that not only is there binding but we've been able to show that it actually affects the functioning of the gene. It's not just sticking to that region, it's actually altering gene expression," Professor Ebers said.

"We show there's an excess of genes that are associated with a bunch of autoimmune conditions that seem to have the vitamin D regulation feature. I don't think we can say [this is] cause and effect, but it's not a coincidence. It is clearly not there by chance. There's a very substantial bias among these genes that have been highlighted as playing a role in these autoimmune conditions, and that have turned out to be regulated by vitamin D," he explained.

If the study, published in the journal Genome Research, is supported by further research it could explain why vitamin D plays such an important role in a wide spectrum of diseases and why people who are native to northern latitudes have over many generations evolved a white skin, which absorbs sunlight more efficiently than darker skin.

"Vitamin D status is potentially one of the most powerful selective pressures on the genome in relatively recent times. Our study appears to support this interpretation and it may be we have not had enough time to make all the adaptations we have needed to cope with our northern circumstances," Professor Ebers said.

Sreeram Ramagopalan, of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford University, said the findings suggest vitamin D supplements may be important. "Vitamin D supplements during pregnancy and the early years could have a beneficial effect on a child's health in later life," he said.

Three ways to get your fix

*Vitamin D is produced naturally by the skin but only in the presence of sunlight. Sunshine contains ultraviolet light B (UVB) which converts a ubiquitious precursor substance in the skin, called 7-dehydrocholesterol, into vitamin D3. This can then be converted by the liver and kidneys into the biologically active form of vitamin D.

The vitamin is also present in relatively high amounts in fish and shellfish, and in lower amounts in eggs and dairy produce. By far the easiest and best way of delivering enough vitamin D to the body is to expose unprotected skin to direct sunlight for a few minutes each day. But light-skinned people are advised not to burn their skin.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all