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Journal of Investigative Medicine:
doi: 10.231/JIM.0b013e31823279f0
EB Symposium Manuscript

Mechanism of Action of Vitamin D in the Asthmatic Lung

Iqbal, Sabah Fatima MD*†‡; Freishtat, Robert J. MD, MPH*†‡

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From the *Division of Emergency Medicine, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC; †Departments of Pediatrics, and ‡Integrative Systems Biology, George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Washington, DC.

Received May 28, 2011.

Accepted for publication August 11, 2011.

Reprints: Sabah Fatima Iqbal, MD, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC. E-mail:

Supported in part by grants K12HL090020 (SFI) and K23RR020069 (RJF), P20MD000198 (RJF), and M01RR020359 (RJF) from the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland; and by a grant from the National Center for Research Resources (R13 RR023236).

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Abstract: Vitamin D, or 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D (1,25[OH]D), in its activated form, has long been recognized as a critical mediator in bone health. New research has identified 1,25(OH)D as also vital for respiratory health. Owing to its intrinsic anti-inflammatory properties, 1,25(OH)D may be very important in people with asthma. This review article seeks to evaluate the current literature to delineate the potential mechanisms of action by which 1,25(OH)D affects asthma. We summarize the evidence that 1,25(OH)D has receptors in multiple lung cell types and acts to abrogate asthma by several mechanisms: promoting lung immunity, decreasing inflammation, slowing cell cycling, reducing hyperplasia, and enhancing the effects of exogenous steroids. Put together, there is compelling evidence for the role of vitamin D in asthma.

Vitamin D is a crucial mediator in calcium homeostasis with a well-described role in bone formation and resorption. Vitamin D is synthesized via precursor exposure to UV light or ingested in the diet and then metabolized in the liver, kidney, and other tissues into its active form, 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D (1,25[OH]D). In pulmonary tissues, 1,25(OH)D has been shown to be both anti-infectious and anti-inflammatory and thus may be important in the pathobiology of asthma, a disease whose exacerbations are commonly triggered by infection and whose chronicity is a result of inflammation. Recently, many studies have shown strong associations between vitamin D levels and asthma in multiple populations,1,2 but there have been no studies that fully describe its mechanism of action in asthmatic lung tissue. Herein, we review the current knowledge regarding how 1,25(OH)D functions in the lung and, in turn, how it may affect asthma (Fig. 1).

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Cells that contain vitamin D receptors (VDRs) are targets for vitamin D activity. The VDR receptor is one of the superfamily of nuclear receptors. Upon entering the cell, vitamin D binds to the VDR then heterodimerizes with the retinoid X receptor (RXR) and forms an active complex that translocates to the nucleus to bind with vitamin D response elements (VDRE) on the genome. Vitamin D receptors are both active and functional at the cellular level in pulmonary tissue. The VDR gene is located on chromosome 12, in an area associated with both asthma diagnosis and asthma severity.3 Vitamin D receptors have been localized in both respiratory epithelial cells and in bronchial smooth muscle. Pulmonary VDRs have been proven to be fully functional: 25(OH)D is converted into 1,25(OH)D in respiratory epithelial cells, and both VDR and CYP24A1 (a hydroxylase that metabolizes 1,25(OH)D) syntheses are increased in bronchial smooth muscle cells,4,5 Eight single nucleotide polymorphism of the VDR gene have also been associated with asthma and atopy in a large population-based study,6 thus establishing a relationship between asthma and vitamin D metabolism genetics.

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Vitamin D has been shown to have a prominent role in pulmonary immunity. This is of particular interest in pediatric asthma as viral infections in infancy often precede the development of childhood asthma, and acute exacerbations are frequently triggered by respiratory tract infections.7,8 Several clinical studies have shown an association between low vitamin D levels and increased severity of upper and lower respiratory tract infections in both pediatric and adult populations.9–11 Children in Bangladesh hospitalized with acute lower respiratory tract infections were shown to have lower vitamin D levels than age- and sex-matched controls in their community.9 In another study, Finnish military recruits with vitamin D levels of less than 40 nmol/L were shown to have more physician-diagnosed respiratory tract infections than vitamin D-sufficient controls.11 In influenza, a common cause of both morbidity and mortality in both healthy and asthmatic people, death rates peak in the months when vitamin D levels are lowest.12

Cathelicidin is a peptide that is a part of the innate immune system and is regulated by 1,25(OH)D. Cathelicidin is known to be active against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria, viruses, and fungi and is secreted by respiratory epithelial cells and peripheral blood immune cells and is primarily regulated by 1,25(OH)D. Cathelicidin-deficient people are more susceptible to mucosal infections.13 Vitamin D response elements were identified in the promoters of both cathelicidin and defensin-β2, another prominent pulmonary antimicrobial peptide, which indicates that 1,25(OH)D stimulates transcription of genes important in pulmonary immunity.14 In fact, in another experiment, respiratory epithelial cells exposed to 1,25(OH)D exhibited increased messenger RNA of both cathelicidin and CD14, another antimicrobial glycoprotein involved in mucosal defense.4 In addition, monocytes exposed to 1,25(OH)D before infection with M. tuberculosis had fewer colony-forming units 7 days after primary infection than controls.15 This suggests that 1,25(OH)D activates antimycobacterial substances through interactions with a VDRE in both respiratory epithelial cells and in peripheral blood. When immortalized lung adenocarcinoma cells were exposed to 1,25(OH)D, resultant cellular secretions were found to be inhibitory to the growth of both Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas, which also indicates transcription and translation of antimicrobial peptides.14

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Inflammation is a key component in the pathology characteristic of asthma; glucocorticoids (GC) are commonly prescribed for their anti-inflammatory properties. 1,25(OH)D has been shown to be anti-inflammatory in many tissues, including lung tissue. When airway smooth muscle cells were treated with tumor necrosis factor alpha and/or interferon gamma to mimic the inflammation of an acute asthmatic flare, and then exposed to increasing doses of 1,25(OH)D and GC, inflammatory cytokine production decreased in a dose-dependent manner. Both RANTES (a proinflammatory molecule that attracts monocytes, eosinophils, and T cells) and IP-10 (a proinflammatory mediator that recruits activated T cells, natural killer cells, and mast cells) were noted to have significant decreases.16 In addition, in a mouse model of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, mice without VDRs (and thus, low vitamin D levels) had increased lung inflammation compared to wild-type mice; they had more neutrophils in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid and increased release of nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (a chemoattractant).17 In yet another study, airway epithelial cells were infected with respiratory syncytial virus, a common culprit of childhood lower respiratory tract infections marked by excessive inflammation of the respiratory epithelium. When the cells were pretreated with vitamin D, there was a dose-dependent increase of the nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells inhibitory protein IκBα.18 If 1,25(OH)D could decrease inflammation caused by viral infections in pulmonary tissues, it could also potentially prevent the onset of acute asthma exacerbations caused by a rapid increase of inflammation.

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Chronic tissue changes in asthma results from hyperplasia of smooth muscle and glandular tissue. 1,25(OH)D ameliorates this disordered growth; in airway smooth muscle cells, VDR-regulated genes that are also part of the asthmatic network include vascular endothelial growth factor, a gene known for increasing smooth muscle hyperplasia; IL-6, a gene involved in increasing remodeling; and FN1 (fibronectin), which has been shown to increase extracellular matrix deposition.5 Down-regulating these genes would result in decreased remodeling.

Decelerating the cell cycle can also result in more organized regeneration, as it allows cells more time to repair DNA damage. When airway smooth muscle cells that were sensitized with asthmatic serum were treated with 1,25(OH)D, fewer cells proceeded into S (synthesis) phase.19 In another study, airway smooth cells from normal and asthmatic donors were treated with 1,25(OH)D and then stimulated with platelet-derived growth factor and/or thrombin, both of which promote cellular proliferation; 1,25(OH)D again reduced proliferation by halting cells in G0/G1 phase.20 This was found to occur by decreasing hyperphosphorylation of retinoblastoma protein and increasing phosphorylation of checkpoint kinase 1 inhibitor.20

In a mouse model, in comparison to wild-type mice, VDR knockout mice have been shown to have higher levels of pulmonary neutrophils, matrix metalloproteinase-2, matrix metalloproteinase-9, and matrix metalloproteinase-12; all known to contribute to increased deposition of extracellular matrix. There was also an increase of collagen deposition in airway tissues of VDR knockout mice.17 All of these studies show that 1,25(OH)D reduces disorganized hyperplastic regeneration in pulmonary tissue.

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Steroid-resistance is a common problem in patients with asthma and can result in significant morbidity. When airway smooth muscle cells are exposed to the combination of tumor necrosis factor and interferon, an in vitro condition mimicking steroid resistance, subsequent treatment with 1,25(OH)D caused a decrease in the expression of FKN, a steroid-resistance gene.16 Increasing 1,25(OH)D levels was associated with improved lung function in vivo and with improved GC responsiveness in vitro: GC-exposed airway cells treated with 1,25(OH)D exhibited enhanced GC-regulated induction of MKP-1, an important anti-inflammatory mediator. The inability to trigger production of c-1 is one of the known mechanisms of steroid resistance. 1,25(OH)D helped to overcome GC resistance by increasing its ability to be anti-inflammatory.21 1,25(OH)D, in combination with dexamethasone, increased both mitogen-activated protein kinase-1 and IL-10, both important anti-inflammatory mediators primarily regulated by GC. Combining 1,25(OH)D and steroids also lowered the total dose of steroid required to increase mitogen-activated protein kinase-1 and IL-10.22

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Asthma is a common chronic lung disease with a few well-defined treatment options. Given its inherent anti-inflammatory and anti-infectious properties, vitamin D has been suggested as adjunctive therapy for improved asthma control. We reviewed the current literature for the mechanisms of action of 1,25(OH)D in lung tissue and found compelling evidence for the hypothesis that vitamin D may be beneficial in patients with asthma. These studies show that 1,25(OH)D acts in lung tissues to improve immune function, reduce inflammation, decelerate cell cycling, decrease hyperplasia, and overcome steroid resistance. Put together, these studies provide ample evidence that vitamin D has the potential to decrease both acute asthma severity and also to reduce remodeling of the lung architecture. However, these results should not be thought of as definitive proof of improved clinical outcomes, but rather as a sufficient baseline knowledge to pursue randomized controlled trials of 1,25(OH)D in people with asthma.

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1. Freishtat RJ, Iqbal SF, Pillai DK, et al.. High prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among inner-city African American youth with asthma in Washington, DC. J Pediatr. 2010; 156 (6): 948–952.

2. Brehm JM, Celedon JC, Soto-Quiros ME, et al.. Serum vitamin D levels and markers of severity of childhood asthma in Costa Rica. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2009; 179 (9): 765–771.

3. Raby BA, Lazarus R, Silverman EK, et al.. Association of vitamin D receptor gene polymorphisms with childhood and adult asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004; 170 (10): 1057–1065.

4. Hansdottir S, Monick MM, Hinde SL, et al.. Respiratory epithelial cells convert inactive vitamin D to its active form: potential effects on host defense. J Immunol. 2008; 181 (10): 7090–7099.

5. Bosse Y, Maghni K, Hudson TJ. 1alpha,25-dihydroxy-vitamin D3 stimulation of bronchial smooth muscle cells induces autocrine, contractility, and remodeling processes. Physiol Genomics. 2007; 29 (2): 161–168.

6. Poon AH, Laprise C, Lemire M, et al.. Association of vitamin D receptor genetic variants with susceptibility to asthma and atopy. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2004; 170 (9): 967–973.

7. Brunetti L, Colazzo D, Francavilla R, et al.. The role of pulmonary infection in pediatric asthma. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2007; 28 (2): 190–193.

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9. Roth DE, Shah R, Black RE, et al.. Vitamin D status and acute lower respiratory infection in early childhood in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Acta Paediatr. 2010; 99 (3): 389–393.

10. Karatekin G, Kaya A, Salihoglu O, et al.. Association of subclinical vitamin D deficiency in newborns with acute lower respiratory infection and their mothers. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009; 63 (4): 473–477.

11. Laaksi I, Ruohola JP, Tuohimaa P, et al.. An association of serum vitamin D concentrations <40 nmol/L with acute respiratory tract infection in young Finnish men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 86 (3): 714–717.

12. Juzeniene A, Ma LW, Kwitniewski M, et al.. The seasonality of pandemic and non-pandemic influenzas: the roles of solar radiation and vitamin D. Int J Infect Dis. 2010; 14 (12): e1099–e1105.

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14. Wang TT, Nestel FP, Bourdeau V, et al.. Cutting edge: 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 is a direct inducer of antimicrobial peptide gene expression. J Immunol. 2004; 173 (5): 2909–2912.

15. Rook GA, Steele J, Fraher L, et al.. Vitamin D3, gamma interferon, and control of proliferation of Mycobacterium tuberculosis by human monocytes. Immunology. 1986; 57 (1): 159–163.

16. Banerjee A, Damera G, Bhandare R, et al.. Vitamin D and glucocorticoids differentially modulate chemokine expression in human airway smooth muscle cells. Br J Pharmacol. 2008; 155 (1): 84–92.

17. Sundar IK, Hwang JW, Wu S, et al.. Deletion of vitamin D receptor leads to premature emphysema/COPD by increased matrix metalloproteinases and lymphoid aggregates formation. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2011; 406 (1): 127–133.

18. Hansdottir S, Monick MM, Lovan N, et al.. Vitamin D decreases respiratory syncytial virus induction of NF-kappaB–linked chemokines and cytokines in airway epithelium while maintaining the antiviral state. J Immunol. 2010; 184 (2): 965–974.

19. Song Y, Qi H, Wu C. Effect of 1,25-(OH)2D3 (a vitamin D analogue) on passively sensitized human airway smooth muscle cells. Respirology. 2007; 12 (4): 486–494.

20. Damera G, Fogle HW, Lim P, et al.. Vitamin D inhibits growth of human airway smooth muscle cells through growth factor-induced phosphorylation of retinoblastoma protein and checkpoint kinase 1. Br J Pharmacol. 2009; 158 (6): 1429–1441.

21. Sutherland ER, Goleva E, Jackson LP, et al.. Vitamin D levels, lung function, and steroid response in adult asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2010; 181 (7): 699–704.

22. Searing DA, Zhang Y, Murphy JR, et al.. Decreased serum vitamin D levels in children with asthma are associated with increased corticosteroid use. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 125 (5): 995–1000.

Cited By:

This article has been cited 1 time(s).

Drug Design Development and Therapy
Vitamin D in asthma and future perspectives
Huang, H; Porpodis, K; Zarogoulidis, P; Domvri, K; Giouleka, P; Papaiwannou, A; Primikyri, S; Mylonaki, E; Spyratos, D; Hohenforst-Schmidt, W; Kioumis, I; Zarogoulidis, K
Drug Design Development and Therapy, 7(): 1003-1013.
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vitamin D; asthma

© 2011 American Federation for Medical Research


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