22-Oxacalcitriol (OCT) is one of several new analogs of vitamin D that retain many of the therapeutically useful properties of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 [1,25-(OH)2D3], but have much less calcemic activity. In the present study we examined the actions of OCT on intestinal calcium absorption and calbindin D9k mRNA in vitamin D-deficient rats. After ip injection of OCT (1 microgram/kg), calcium absorption increased significantly by 2 h and was maximal at 4 h (2.5-fold above control), but returned to pretreatment levels by 16 h. In contrast, the same dose of 1,25-(OH)2D3 caused a 3-fold increase in calcium absorption, which lasted more than 48 h. The transient effect of OCT on calcium absorption was also observed when the analog was infused at a dose of 1 micrograms/kg.day for 3 days. At the end of the infusion period, calcium absorption was 3-fold higher than that in vehicle-infused controls, but fell to pretreatment levels by 24 h after removing the minipumps. The time courses for induction of calbindin D9k mRNA were similar for OCT and 1,25-(OH)2D3, with no change observed until more than 4 h after injection. However, calbindin mRNA levels returned to pretreatment values more rapidly in the OCT-treated rats. Consistent with these findings, we observed that a 1 microgram/kg dose of [3H] OCT was completely cleared by 4-6 h after injection. This was paralleled by a loss of [3H]OCT associated with the intestinal vitamin D receptor. The rapid clearance of OCT is probably due to its low affinity for the serum vitamin D-binding protein. This low affinity would also be expected to allow greater accessibility to target cells. In support of this, we found that higher amounts of OCT than 1,25-(OH)2D3 were associated with the intestinal vitamin D receptor after the injection of several doses of these tritiated ligands. In summary, our results indicate that the pharmacokinetic properties of OCT are responsible at least in part for its low calcemic activity. Furthermore, comparison of the transient elevation of calcium absorption by OCT with its more prolonged effects on PTH and calbindin D9k indicates that each action of vitamin D compounds has a distinct biological half-life. The short circulating half-life of OCT can exploit these differences to provide a therapeutic advantage in the treatment of vitamin D-responsive diseases.