Vitamin D and Immune Function

Principal Investigator: Adrian Gombart, Ph.D.

Our research is focused on understanding the regulation of antimicrobial peptide expression by the vitamin D pathway. When immune cells called macrophages encounter a pathogen and become activated, the vitamin D pathway is turned on, leading to the induction of the cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide if serum levels of vitamin D are sufficient. We have shown that this mechanism is conserved in humans and primates but not in other mammals. Therefore, we developed a transgenic mouse that carries the human cathelicidin gene. Using this model, we are testing the ability of vitamin D to protect against infection by influenza, Salmonella, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Vitamin D has been used to treat tuberculosis, and its deficiency is associated with increased risk of tuberculosis. This model will allow us to test the role of vitamin D and cathelicidin during initial infection, latency, and reactivation.

Another focus of our research is to identify additional dietary compounds that regulate the expression of the cathelicidin gene. This gene is also induced by sodium butyrate and lithocholic acid, which functions through the vitamin D receptor. Nutrients that bind the vitamin D receptor may modulate the immune system by inducing the cathelicidin gene. We discovered that curcumin in curry modestly induces expression of the cathelicidin gene, which could protect the gut from infection. In collaboration with colleagues at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, we discovered that vitamin B3 (niacin) boosts killing of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) by white blood cells, in part, by increasing cathelicidin levels. A small molecule library is being screened for regulators of the cathelicidin gene. The identification of new regulatory compounds may give clues as to how the gene is regulated in vivo and lead to the identification of other nutrients that can be used to boost the immune system.

Finally, we are interested in determining the effect of vitamin D on the function of the innate immune system in the elderly. Aging is accompanied by low-grade, chronic, systemic inflammation, and vitamin D has important anti-inflammatory properties. We want to determine if sufficient levels of vitamin D will reduce the inflammatory phenotype. We also want to determine if reversing severe deficiency will raise cathelicidin protein levels in the blood, which may reduce mortality in kidney dialysis and sepsis patients.