Vitamin D supplementation for prevention of cancer in adults 

Review question

Does vitamin D supplementation prevent cancer?

Background

The available evidence on vitamin D and cancer occurrence is intriguing but inconclusive. Many observational studies as well as randomised trials suggest that high vitamin D levels in the blood are related to reduced cancer occurrence. However, results of randomised trials testing the effect of vitamin D supplementation for cancer prevention are contradictory.

Study characteristics

The aim of this systematic review was to analyse the benefits and harms of the different forms of vitamin D especially on cancer occurrence. A total of 18 trials provided data for this review; 50,623 participants were randomly assigned to either vitamin D or placebo or no treatment. All trials were conducted in high-income countries.

Key results

The age range of the participants was 47 to 97 years and on average 81% were women. The majority of the included participants did not have vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D administration lasted on average six years and most trial investigators used vitamin D₃(cholecalciferol). We did not find firm evidence that vitamin D supplementation decreases or increases cancer occurrence in predominantly elderly community-dwelling women. We observed decreases in all-cause mortality and cancer-related mortality among the vitamin D/D₃ treated participants in comparison with the participants in the control groups. However, using trial sequential analysis, a statistical approach to reconfirm or question these findings, we conclude that these results could be due to random errors (play of chance). We also found evidence that combined vitamin D₃ and calcium supplements increased renal stone occurrence, but it remains unclear from the included trials whether vitamin D₃, calcium, or both were responsible for this effect. Moreover, these results could also be due to random errors (play of chance).

Quality of the evidence

A large number of the study participants left the trials before completion, and this raises concerns regarding the validity of the results. Most of the trials were judged not to be well and fairly conducted so that the results were likely to be biased (that is, possibly an overestimation of benefits and underestimation of harms).

Currentness of evidence

This evidence is up to date as of February 2014.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is currently no firm evidence that vitamin D supplementation decreases or increases cancer occurrence in predominantly elderly community-dwelling women. Vitamin D₃ supplementation decreased cancer mortality and vitamin D supplementation decreased all-cause mortality, but these estimates are at risk of type I errors due to the fact that too few participants were examined, and to risks of attrition bias originating from substantial dropout of participants.Combined vitamin D₃ and calcium supplements increased nephrolithiasis, whereas it remains unclear from the included trials whether vitamin D₃, calcium, or both were responsible for this effect. We need more trials on vitamin D supplementation, assessing the benefits and harms among younger participants, men, and people with low vitamin D status, and assessing longer duration of treatments as well as higher dosages of vitamin D. Follow-up of all participants is necessary to reduce attrition bias.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

The evidence on whether vitamin D supplementation is effective in decreasing cancers is contradictory.

Objectives: 

To assess the beneficial and harmful effects of vitamin D supplementation for prevention of cancer in adults.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, LILACS, Science Citation Index Expanded, and the Conference Proceedings Citation Index-Science to February 2014. We scanned bibliographies of relevant publications and asked experts and pharmaceutical companies for additional trials.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised trials that compared vitamin D at any dose, duration, and route of administration versus placebo or no intervention in adults who were healthy or were recruited among the general population, or diagnosed with a specific disease. Vitamin D could have been administered as supplemental vitamin D (vitamin D₃(cholecalciferol) or vitamin D₂ (ergocalciferol)), or an active form of vitamin D (1α-hydroxyvitamin D (alfacalcidol), or 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(calcitriol)).

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors extracted data independently. We conducted random-effects and fixed-effect model meta-analyses. For dichotomous outcomes, we calculated the risk ratios (RRs). We considered risk of bias in order to assess the risk of systematic errors. We conducted trial sequential analyses to assess the risk of random errors.

Main results: 

Eighteen randomised trials with 50,623 participants provided data for the analyses. All trials came from high-income countries. Most of the trials had a high risk of bias, mainly for-profit bias. Most trials included elderly community-dwelling women (aged 47 to 97 years). Vitamin D was administered for a weighted mean of six years. Fourteen trials tested vitamin D₃, one trial tested vitamin D₂, and three trials tested calcitriol supplementation. Cancer occurrence was observed in 1927/25,275 (7.6%) recipients of vitamin D versus 1943/25,348 (7.7%) recipients of control interventions (RR 1.00 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.94 to 1.06); P = 0.88; I² = 0%; 18 trials; 50,623 participants; moderate quality evidence according to the GRADE instrument). Trial sequential analysis (TSA) of the 18 vitamin D trials shows that the futility area is reached after the 10th trial, allowing us to conclude that a possible intervention effect, if any, is lower than a 5% relative risk reduction. We did not observe substantial differences in the effect of vitamin D on cancer in subgroup analyses of trials at low risk of bias compared to trials at high risk of bias; of trials with no risk of for-profit bias compared to trials with risk of for-profit bias; of trials assessing primary prevention compared to trials assessing secondary prevention; of trials including participants with vitamin D levels below 20 ng/mL at entry compared to trials including participants with vitamin D levels of 20 ng/mL or more at entry; or of trials using concomitant calcium supplementation compared to trials without calcium. Vitamin D decreased all-cause mortality (1854/24,846 (7.5%) versus 2007/25,020 (8.0%); RR 0.93 (95% CI 0.88 to 0.98); P = 0.009; I² = 0%; 15 trials; 49,866 participants; moderate quality evidence), but TSA indicates that this finding could be due to random errors. Cancer occurrence was observed in 1918/24,908 (7.7%) recipients of vitamin D₃ versus 1933/24,983 (7.7%) in recipients of control interventions (RR 1.00 (95% CI 0.94 to 1.06); P = 0.88; I² = 0%; 14 trials; 49,891 participants; moderate quality evidence). TSA of the vitamin D₃ trials shows that the futility area is reached after the 10th trial, allowing us to conclude that a possible intervention effect, if any, is lower than a 5% relative risk reduction. Vitamin D₃ decreased cancer mortality (558/22,286 (2.5%) versus 634/22,206 (2.8%); RR 0.88 (95% CI 0.78 to 0.98); P = 0.02; I²=0%; 4 trials; 44,492 participants; low quality evidence), but TSA indicates that this finding could be due to random errors. Vitamin D₃ combined with calcium increased nephrolithiasis (RR 1.17 (95% CI 1.03 to 1.34); P = 0.02; I² = 0%; 3 trials; 42,753 participants; moderate quality evidence). TSA, however, indicates that this finding could be due to random errors. We did not find any data on health-related quality of life or health economics in the randomised trials included in this review.

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