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Can Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) help prevent arthritis?

Award Details

  • Principal Investigator
    Professor David Sansom
  • Type of grant
    Project Grant
  • Amount Awarded
  • Institute
    University of Birmingham
  • Location
  • Status
  • Start Date
  • Grant reference number
  • Condition
    Rheumatoid Arthritis

What are the aims of this research?

We want to explore how vitamin D affects T cells which are part of the immune system. In particular we wish to find out whether vitamin D can alter the aggressive immune response found in rheumatoid arthritis and turn it into a less harmful or even a protective one.

Why is this research important?

People who get rheumatoid arthritis have some genes which contribute to them developing the disease. Most of these genes work within the immune system and we know the ones with biggest impact affect specific immune cells called T cells. It is also clear that genes are not enough to cause arthritis and that there is a big effect of the environment. Therefore, environmental factors which affect T cells are good candidates in understanding the causes of arthritis.

We have recently found that vitamin D can have powerful effects on the type of immune cells which may cause arthritis. However in the UK many people have low levels of vitamin D as we generate most of our vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Our work has shown that treating T cells with vitamin D turns off soluble messengers which are known to make arthritis worse. It may even turn on things that can make arthritis better. What is not known is how we can use vitamin D to the best effect on T cells, which are known to be important in causing arthritis.

We will feed immune cells (from a blood sample) with vitamin D and measure how they behave, to understand more about what effects this treatment has. We want to find out if vitamin D changes the behaviour of established aggressive cells or if it can only prevent new ones from becoming aggressive. In addition we may need to combine vitamin D with other drugs to get better effects. We will use an animal model of arthritis to test if this treatment works.

How will the findings benefit patients?

This is the first stage in testing if vitamin D could be used as a treatment alongside, or instead of, current treatments. If this type of treatment is successful we might be able to re-programme immune cells away from their aggressive behaviour. We anticipate that it may take 3-5 years to develop this work sufficiently to permit clinical trials. However, since vitamin D is already in clinical use for other diseases this should make it easier to transfer into a treatment for arthritis.

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Arthritis Research UK fund research into the cause, treatment and cure of arthritis. You can support Arthritis Research UK by volunteering, donating or visiting our shops.