How strong is the evidence that solar ultraviolet B and vitamin D reduce the risk of cancer?: An examination using Hill's criteria for causality

Dermatoendocrinol. 2009 Jan;1(1):17-24. doi: 10.4161/derm.1.1.7388.


The ultraviolet-B (UVB)-vitamin D-cancer hypothesis was proposed in 1980. Since then, several ecological and observational studies have examined the hypothesis, in addition to one good randomized, controlled trial. Also, the mechanisms whereby vitamin D reduces the risk of cancer have been elucidated. This report aims to examine the evidence to date with respect to the criteria for causality in a biological system first proposed by Robert Koch and later systematized by A. Bradford Hill. The criteria of most relevance are strength of association, consistency, biological gradient, plausibility/mechanisms and experimental verification. Results for several cancers generally satisfy these criteria. Results for breast and colorectal cancer satisfy the criteria best, but there is also good evidence that other cancers do as well, including bladder, esophageal, gallbladder, gastric, ovarian, rectal, renal and uterine corpus cancer, as well as Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Several cancers have mixed findings with respect to UVB and/or vitamin D, including pancreatic and prostate cancer and melanoma. Even for these, the benefit of vitamin D seems reasonably strong. Although ecological and observational studies are not generally regarded as able to provide convincing evidence of causality, the fact that humanity has always existed with vitamin D from solar UVB irradiance means that there is a wealth of evidence to be harvested using the ecological and observational approaches. Nonetheless, additional randomized, controlled trials are warranted to further examine the link between vitamin D and cancer incidence, survival and mortality.

Keywords: association; breast cancer; colon cancer; dose-response; ecologic; mechanisms; observational; supplements; viral infections.