OMRF researchers link vitamin D deficiency with lupus

Vitamin D has long been renowned for its role in creating strong bones. But research from OMRF suggests that the vitamin could also play an early role in autoimmune diseases such as lupus.

OMRF researcher Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., and Lauren Cole, a graduate student in James’s lab, have found that in people who are genetically predisposed to lupus, a vitamin D deficiency could serve as a catalyst to developing the disease. The finding could potentially be useful in treating lupus, which affects up to 2 million Americans and has no known cure.

“Vitamin D could be beneficial to lupus patients and people who are at increased risk of developing the disease, such as their family members,” said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research at OMRF. “With vitamin D supplements, doctors might be able to reduce the chances of an ‘autoimmune’ attack,” which occurs when the body mistakes its own tissue for foreign invaders.

James and Cole presented their findings at the annual Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies Conference in Boston.

“Researchers had previously linked vitamin D deficiency with autoimmune diseases like lupus,” Cole said. “What we found is that in both lupus patients and healthy individuals, low levels of vitamin D correlated with increased autoantibodies”—proteins that attack the body’s own tissue.

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system turns its defenses against itself. It can affect any part of the body, but it most commonly attacks the skin, joints, blood and kidneys.

“By boosting vitamin D levels, we’d hope to see a drop in autoantibodies,” Cole said.

Sunlight serves as the primary source of vitamin D, which is formed when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet B radiation. But because skin sensitivity to light is a symptom of lupus, James said, patients would likely need supplements to keep their vitamin D levels up.

About lupus
In lupus, the immune system loses its ability to differentiate between foreign substances and its own cells and tissues, causing the body to attack itself. Lupus can affect any part of the body—most commonly the skin, joints, blood and kidneys—and can be life-threatening. The disease primarily strikes women and has no known cure. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that as many as 2 million Americans suffer from lupus.