Vitamin D: considerations in the continued development as an agent for cancer prevention and therapy

Cancer J. Jan-Feb 2010;16(1):1-9. doi: 10.1097/PPO.0b013e3181c51ee6.


Considerable preclinical and epidemiologic data suggest that vitamin D may play a role in the pathogenesis, progression, and therapy for cancer. Numerous epidemiologic studies support the hypothesis that individuals with lower serum vitamin D levels have a higher risk of a number of cancers. Measures of vitamin D level in such studies include both surrogate estimates of vitamin D level (residence in more northern latitudes, history of activity, and sun exposure) as well as measured serum 25(OH) cholecalciferol levels. Perhaps, the most robust of these epidemiologic studies is that of Giovannucci et al, who developed and validated an estimate of serum 25(OH) cholecalciferol level and reported that among >40,000 individuals in the Health Professionals Study, an increase in 25(OH) cholecalciferol level of 62.5 ng/mL was associated with a reduction in the risk of head/neck, esophagus, pancreas cancers, and acute leukemia by >50%. Unfortunately, very limited data are available to indicate whether or not giving vitamin D supplements reduces the risk of cancer. Many preclinical studies indicate that exposing cancer cells, as well as vascular endothelial cells derived from tumors, to high concentrations of active metabolites of vitamin D halts progression through cell cycle, induces apoptosis and will slow or stop the growth of tumors in vivo. There are no data that one type of cancer is more or less susceptible to the effects of vitamin D. Vitamin D also potentiates the antitumor activity of a number of types of cytotoxic anticancer agents in in vivo preclinical models. Vitamin D analogues initiate signaling through a number of important pathways, but the pathway(s) essential to the antitumor activities of vitamin D are unclear. Clinical studies of vitamin D as an antitumor agent have been hampered by the lack of a suitable pharmaceutical preparation for clinical study. All commercially available formulations are inadequate because of the necessity to administer large numbers of caplets and the poor "bioavailability" of calcitriol (the most carefully studied analogue) at these high doses. Preclinical data suggest that high exposures to calcitriol are necessary for the antitumor effects. Clinical data do indicate that high doses of calcitriol (>100 mcg weekly, intravenously, and 0.15 microg /kg weekly, orally) can be given safely. The maximum tolerated dose of calcitriol is unclear. While a 250-patient trial in men with castration-resistant prostate cancer comparing docetaxel (36 mg/sqm weekly) +/- calcitriol 0.15 microg/kg indicated that calcitriol was very safe may have reduced to death rate, an adequately powered (1000 patients) randomized study of weekly docetaxel + calcitriol versus q3 week docetaxel was negative. The limitations of this trial were the unequal chemotherapy arms compared in this study and the failure to use an optimal biologic dose or maximum-tolerated dose of calcitriol. In view of the substantial preclinical and epidemiologic data supporting the potential role of vitamin D in cancer, careful studies to evaluate the impact of vitamin D replacement on the frequency of cancer and the impact of an appropriate dose and schedule of calcitriol or other active vitamin D analogue on the treatment of established cancer are indicated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bone Density Conservation Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Vitamin D / therapeutic use*


  • Bone Density Conservation Agents
  • Vitamin D