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Boosting Vitamin D Levels May Help Prevent Breast Cancer, Study Suggests

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Results from a new study show for the first time how improved vitamin D levels in women could prevent breast cancer.

Previously it was thought that the active form of the vitamin, calcitriol, which is a potent anti-cancer agent, was only made in the kidney. Now researchers have discovered that breast tissue also contains the enzyme that activates vitamin D, and levels of this enzyme are increased in breast tumors.

The scientists, from the University of Birmingham and St. George's Hospital, London, think that having a local cancer-fighting 'factory' is part of the breast's natural immune response to a tumor. First author K. Townsend and colleagues reported on their study at the 23rd Joint Meeting of the British Endocrine Societies with the European Federation of Endocrine Societies, March 22-24, 2004.

A contributing factor to the relatively high incidence of breast cancer in the U.K. may be low levels of vitamin D in our bodies. Exposure to sunlight is the greatest source of vitamin D and population studies have previously suggested that the higher vitamin levels may contribute to the lower incidence of breast cancer seen in sunny climates such as the Mediterranean.

The teams from Birmingham and London have provided a mechanism for this by unraveling how vitamin D is activated to calcitriol in the breast.

Martin Hewison, who heads the research team, said, "Our work shows that the breast has its own local 'factory' for generating the anti-cancer form of vitamin D. Unfortunately, women who live in cloudy countries like the U.K. may not have enough of the raw material, vitamin D, to fuel this factory.

"Exposure to sunlight is the most efficient way of generating vitamin D in our bodies, but we all know of the dangers of sunbathing. Perhaps now it's time to look at improving our dietary intake through fortification of more foods with vitamin D," he said.

Peter Selby, a lecturer in medicine at Manchester University, noted that "vitamin D deficiency is common in the U.K., especially amongst the elderly and Asian populations." This article was prepared by Cancer Weekly editors from staff and other reports. Copyright 2004, Cancer Weekly via &

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