Patients with nephrotic syndrome have low blood levels of 25 hydroxyvitamin D (25-OH-D) most probably because of losses in urine, and a vitamin D-deficient state may ensue. The biological consequences of this phenomenon on target organs of vitamin D are not known. This study evaluates one of these target organs, the bone. Because renal failure is associated with bone disease, we studied six patients with nephrotic syndrome and normal renal function. The glomerular filtration rate was 113+/-2.1 (SE) ml/min; serum albumin, 2.3+/-27 g/dl; and proteinuria ranged between 3.5 and 14.7 g/24 h. Blood levels of 25-OH-D, total and ionized calcium and carboxy-terminal fragment of immunoreactive parathyroid hormone were measured, and morphometric analysis of bone histology was made in iliac crest biopsies obtained after double tetracycline labeling. Blood 25-OH-D was low in all patients (3.2-5.1 ng/ml; normal, 21.8+/-2.3 ng/ml). Blood levels of both total (8.1+/-0.12 mg/dl) and ionized (3.8+/-0.21 mg/dl) calcium were lower than normal and three patients had true hypocalcemia. Blood immuno-reactive parathyroid hormone levels were elevated in all. Volumetric density of osteoid was significantly increased in three out of six patients and the fraction of mineralizing osteoid seams was decreased in all. Evidence for an increase in active lacunae (bone-osteoclast interface) occurred in three out of six patients and in inactive (Howship's lacunae) bone resorption in six out of six. The data indicate that the loss of 25-OH-D in urine of patients with nephrotic syndrome and normal renal function may result in a decrease of blood levels of ionized calcium, secondary hyperparathyroidism and enhanced bone resorption. In addition, the vitamin D-deficient state causes osteomalacia as evidenced by defective mineralization and increased osteoid volume.