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Study finds vitamin D does not protect against most cancers

QIMR Berghofer researchers have found vitamin D levels do not influence a person’s risk of developing most common cancers, suggesting that widespread use of vitamin D supplements is unlikely to prevent cancer.

The study used genetic markers of vitamin D to examine the relationship between vitamin D and endometrial, ovarian, oesophageal, prostate, pancreatic and lung cancers, as well as neuroblastoma, melanoma, and basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the skin.

While they did not find a link between most of the cancers, the researchers did confirm previous research that found women who were genetically predisposed to having higher levels of vitamin D had a slightly lower risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Lead researcher from QIMR Berghofer’s Statistical Genetics Group, Dr Jue-Sheng Ong, said the study was the largest to date that used genetic markers of vitamin D to examine the relationship between the vitamin and cancer.

“We know that vitamin D is important to maintain musculoskeletal health. Some laboratory studies have suggested it also has anti-cancer properties, because vitamin D receptors can regulate growth and elimination of tumour cells,” Dr Ong said.

“We determined the genetic markers for vitamin D levels from more than 400,000 people and found no relationship between those genes and the genetic data for most cancers. This suggests that for most people, taking vitamin D supplements would not prevent those cancers.

“The study couldn’t rule out a potential beneficial effect for rarer cancers and we did observe that higher genetically predicted levels of vitamin D were associated with a reduced risk of ovarian cancer.

“Our study also sheds more light on the relationship between vitamin D and common skin cancers. We found no link between vitamin D levels and the non-melanoma skin cancers BCC and SCC when we took into account sun exposure and skin colour of participants. This is contrary to many earlier studies that had drawn a link but had not accounted for those factors.”

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Statistical Genetics group, Professor Stuart MacGregor, said the study provided greater clarity in a controversial area.

“Previous studies of this type used information on genetically derived vitamin D levels from only a handful of genomic regions, whereas this new study leveraged 74 regions of the human genome. Our study also considered the widest range of cancers in a study of this kind to date,” Professor MacGregor said.

Senior researcher and the head of QIMR Berghofer’s Cancer Aetiology and Prevention group, Professor Rachel Neale, said the ovarian cancer link should drive more investigation into the potential role of vitamin D in ovarian cancer development.

“This research suggests that increasing vitamin D levels, perhaps by taking vitamin D supplements, might reduce women’s risk of ovarian cancer,  but we need more data before recommending that all Australian women take vitamin D for this purpose ”  Professor Neale said.

The study findings are published in the journal Nature Communications. The study was funded by a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia for research into modifiable risk factors that cause cancer.

It used recently released individual-level data on blood vitamin D levels from more than 400,000 people in the UK Biobank.

Genetic summary data for each cancer was obtained from several large international cancer collaborations and studies, including QIMR Berghofer’s QSkin study of skin cancer.