United Kingdom—Vitamin D can make melanoma cells less aggressive, according to scientists at Cancer Research UK.

A press release says that the researchers found that vitamin D influences the behavior of a signaling pathway within melanoma cells, slowing down their growth and preventing them from spreading to the lungs in mice.

The release notes that, while this is early research, it shows promise. Scientists have previously known that lower levels of vitamin D circulating in the body have been linked to worse outcomes for people with melanoma, but they haven’t understood the mechanisms in question. Professor Newton-Bishop and her team and the University of Leeds designed the study to discover what processes were being regulated by vitamin D in melanoma cells, and what happens when the cells lack a vitamin D receptor (VDR).
Related: Vitamin D Supplementation Linked With Reduced Risk of Cancer Death Vitamin D Deficiency in Childhood Linked to Behavioral Problems in New Study Vitamin D of No Use to Those Over 70? Experts Clarify the Research
The team found that human tumors with lower levels of the VDR gene grew faster, and had a lower activity of genes that control pathways that help the immune system fight cancer cells. They also found that tumors with lower VDR levels had a higher activity of genes linked to cancer growth and spread, particularly the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway, which helps to modulate a variety of biological processes within the cell, including growth.

In mice, the researchers found that increasing the amount of VDR on the melanoma cells reduced activity of the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway, and slowed down the growth of the melanoma cells. They also found that the cancer was less likely to spread to their lungs.

Professor Newton-Bishop said in the release: “After years of research, we finally know how vitamin D works with VDR to influence the behavior of melanoma cells by reducing activity of the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway. This new puzzle piece will help us better understand how melanoma grows and spreads, and hopefully find new targets to control it. But what’s really intriguing is that we can now see how vitamin D might help the immune system fight cancer. We know when the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway is active in melanoma, it can dampen down the immune response causing fewer immune cells to reach the inside of the tumor, where they could potentially fight the cancer better.”

She adds that vitamin D isn’t a cancer treatment on its own, but insights gained from its mechanism of action could be used to boost the effects of immunotherapy, which uses the immune system to find and attack cancer cells.

Martin Ledwick, Head Information Nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “Vitamin D is important for our muscle and bone health, and the NHS already recommends getting 10 micrograms per day as part of our diet or as supplements, especially in the winter months. People who have been newly diagnosed with melanoma should have their vitamin D levels checked and managed accordingly. If you are worried about your vitamin D levels, its best to speak to your doctor who can help ensure you are not deficient.”