Alumni News Issue Five 2018

How calcium and vitamin D help fight cancer

Associate Professor Paul Anderson

Associate Professor in Physiology
Head of Musculoskeletal Biology Research Laboratory, School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences

Maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D and calcium could make all the difference in improving bone health and preventing and treating bone diseases, rare bone disorders and even breast cancer.

Associate Professor Paul Anderson of UniSA's School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences is currently working on a diverse range of projects to study the impact of calcium and vitamin D levels and supplements on the health outcomes of various conditions.

Associate Professor Paul Anderson

Two of these conditions, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, are on the rise in Australia's ageing society, and according to Osteoporosis Australia, 66% of Australians over the age of fifty have either one of these diseases or poor bone health.

Osteoporosis and osteoarthritis can lead to bone fractures, a loss of mobility and independence, and an increase of mortality, and Assoc Prof Anderson says the key to prevention is nutrition and exercise, stressing the importance of calcium and vitamin D.

Osteoporosis is more often associated with women, as menopause causes the loss of estrogen which then accelerates bone loss, so his current clinical trial focuses on the various levels of calcium among post-menopausal women.

"This is an important study because while there are current recommendations as to how much calcium a woman should have, this is broadly based only on women who are lean," he says.

"The current data regarding bone health and obesity is very conflicting, so women who are clinically obese do not know how much calcium they should be taking to prevent bone loss and there is uncertainty in the medical community as to what to recommend overall.

"This study is really about seeing if post-menopausal women who are clinically obese respond differently compared to lean post-menopausal women when given calcium of equal doses."

The other key component to a healthy skeleton alongside calcium is vitamin D, and Assoc Prof Anderson aims to further understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which vitamin D can directly and indirectly improve bone health.

"We see a lot in commercials about how vitamin D strengthens your bones, but the actual science behind it is a bit imprecise."

Working with orthopedic surgeons at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Assoc Prof Anderson studies patient biopsies to understand the connection between vitamin D deficiency and poor bone health.

"These are osteoporotic patients who require surgery with an implant to mend a bone fracture.

"Often in the elderly, there is poor quality of healing after surgery, which is largely due to the poor quality of bone that is there to begin with – it doesn't respond well to surgery.

"We analyze the samples and take this information back to the surgeons, who have begun to recognize that part of their bone healing therapy should involve ensuring patients have adequate levels of vitamin D."

Associate Professor Paul Anderson.jpg

Poor bone health does not just affect the elderly though, and Assoc Prof Anderson and his team are also working with a rare musculoskeletal condition that affects children called X-Linked Hypophosphatemia (XLH).

A rare disorder that affects around one in 20,000 people, XLH is usually genetic but can in some cases appear in children with no family history.

"The mutation itself arises in a particular bone cell called the osteocyte, and causes an altered production of a particular hormone that triggers phosphate to be excreted from the body at high rates.

"Phosphate is vital for healthy bones, and without it a child's bones can become literally rubbery, and symptoms include bone and tooth weakness and pain, bow legs and even bow arms in severe cases.

"Treatments for this disorder are very poor at the moment; one of the negative effects of XLH is an excessive catabolism (breaking down) of vitamin D, so we are working on developing a drug that blocks this catabolism, which could heal the bone."

Assoc Prof Anderson's work surrounding vitamin D is not solely focused on bone health as he has also turned his attention to the strong link between vitamin D deficiency and breast cancer.

Working in collaboration with the University of Adelaide and McGill University in Canada, he is working with the same idea of preventing the catabolism of vitamin D as a means of cancer prevention.

"The kidney is normally considered the major organ for producing vitamin D, but we have identified that a variety of cells also produce it for their own purposes, including mammary cells in the breast.

"This production of vitamin D appears to improve cell differentiation, which is positive in terms of being anti-cancer, but if mammary cells cannot synthesize their own vitamin D, then there is a higher risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lung.

"If the cells lose this ability to produce the vitamin, they can become more cancerous, so blocking the catabolism of vitamin D might become an effective therapy for cancer prevention and treatment."

Assoc Prof Anderson hopes to continue this research in regard to colon cancer in the future.

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