A small study
conducted by researchers at Penn State and Helen
Hayes Hospital in New York has shown that a daily
dose of vitamin D - 1000 IU or two and a half
times the recommended dose for adults -- causes
changes in blood chemistry that indicate positive
effects for multiple sclerosis patients.
Dr. Margherita Cantorna, assistant professor of
nutrition, says the study has not been in progress
long enough to observe changes in the clinical
symptoms of the disease in the patients who
However, blood samples drawn after just 6
months of Vitamin D supplementation show an
increase in transforming growth factor beta-1
(TGF-Beta), which is associated with the remission
and suppression of the immune response that
produces symptoms in MS patients. In addition, the
researchers found a decrease in interleuken-2,
which is associated with the cells that induce MS.
Cantorna's student, Brett Mahon, a doctoral
candidate in nutrition, detailed the study results
last week at the Experimental Biology 2001
conference in Orlando, Fla. The paper, "Altered
Cytokine Profile in Patients with Multiple
Sclerosis Following Vitamin D Supplementation," is
co-authored by Dr. Felicia Cosman, medical
director, Clinical Research Center, S. A. Gordon
and J. Cruz, all of Helen Hayes Hospital, and
Cantorna. Mahon is first author.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, Cantorna and others had shown,
in experiments with mice, that vitamin D
supplementation could completely prevent the
development of MS in susceptible animals. After
Cantorna joined the faculty at Penn State, she
learned of Dr. Cosman's research program which
centers on investigating whether a low level
vitamin D deficiency in MS patients might account
for the incidence of brittle bones.
Cantorna asked Cosman for blood samples from
the participating patients to see if the same
changes she had observed in mice also occur in
humans who receive vitamin D supplementation. She
found that the results were, in fact, similar at
the blood chemistry level.
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in
which the victim's own immune system attacks the
spinal cord and brain. The disease afflicts about
350,000 people in the United States alone. Its
cause is thought to be a complex interaction of
genetics and environmental forces that are not
Cantorna and others hypothesize that one
crucial environmental factor involved in the
development of the disease is the amount of
sunlight a person receives. Exposure to sunlight
catalyzes the production of vitamin D in the skin.
In low sunlight, the skin produces significantly
less vitamin D.
In support of a connection among sunlight,
vitamin D and multiple sclerosis, Cantorna points
out that the incidence of the disease is nearly
zero near the equator and increases with latitude
in both hemispheres. In addition, Switzerland has
high MS rates at low altitudes and low MS rates at
high altitudes. Ultraviolet light is more intense
at higher altitudes, resulting in the skin
manufacturing more vitamin D.
Other evidence of an MS/vitamin D link comes
from Norway, where MS rates are higher inland than
on the coast where larger quantities of fish are
consumed -- which are rich in vitamin D.
While Cantorna's research and MS's geographical
distribution suggest a connection between vitamin
D and MS, she cautions that the vitamin's exact
role is still unclear.
The College of Health and Human Development
faculty member recommends MS patients to continue
to follow their personal physician's advice. Since
vitamin D can be toxic in high doses, it would not
be a good idea to begin taking vitamin D pills
available over-the-counter in large amounts.
On the other hand, since adequate amounts of
vitamin D are difficult to get from diet and
because MS patients often have to stay out of the
sun, a vitamin D supplement at the current
recommended daily requirement level ought to be
considered. There are potential benefits for bone
health and for the immune system as well.
The project was supported by two grants from
the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation -- one
to Cantorna and the other to Cosman.