“The sun has got his hat on”: children’s charity investing over £300k on ‘sunshine’ vitamin D research | Action Medical Research

“The sun has got his hat on”: children’s charity investing over £300k on ‘sunshine’ vitamin D research

1 June 2012

Research projects investigating vitamin D deficiency have been awarded over £300k by the children’s charity dedicated to helping babies and children - Action Medical Research. The charity awards approximately £3 million in total every year for top researchers across the country.

We get most of our vitamin D from sunlight on our skin. The vitamin is made by our body under the skin in reaction to UVB rays in sunlight. It is also found in a small number of foods including oily fish, eggs and fortified spreads, breakfast cereals and milk powder.

Vitamin D deficiency: should advice on sun exposure take skin colour into account?
Although we get some vitamin D from food, our skin produces the majority of our vitamin D when we are outside in the sunlight. Reports suggest there is a resurgence of vitamin D deficiency in the UK and that children from South Asian ethnic groups are particularly vulnerable.

Professor Lesley Rhodes at the University of Manchester is investigating the influence of lifestyle factors such as sun exposure on vitamin D levels in children from South Asian ethnic groups in the UK. Evidence suggests that these children may be at risk of poor bone health because of vitamin D deficiency.1,2

Action Medical Research has awarded £150,291 for her 18 month research project. The research could lead to new public health messages specifically for children with darker skin about sun exposure, hopefully leading to the ultimate goal of preventing vitamin D deficiency.

Public health campaigns in the UK encourage us to limit our summer sunlight exposure, by staying in the shade, wearing protective clothing and using sunscreen, to help protect against skin cancer. However, the darker someone’s skin is, the more sun they need to produce enough vitamin D.

Vitamin D deficiency during childhood can have lifelong consequences. "Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, especially during the growth spurt that occurs during adolescence," explains Professor Rhodes, advisor to the UK’s SunSmart campaign. "Prolonged vitamin D deficiency causes bones to be weak, making children prone to fractures. In severe cases it causes the bone deformity seen in rickets. There is also evidence to suggest that vitamin D might protect against some cancers, multiple sclerosis and diabetes."

Around 125 children of South Asian descent, aged 12-15 and living in Greater Manchester are taking part in this study which is due to start after the summer, due to the seasonal requirements of the research.

“We are monitoring the children for one to two-week periods, once during each season of the year," explains lead researcher Professor Rhodes. "The children are wearing special badges that measure sun exposure. They are keeping diaries of how much time they spend indoors and outdoors, what they are doing, what they are wearing, what sunscreen they use and what food they eat. We are also assessing the children’s vitamin D levels. "The team is also measuring the strength of the sun during each one to two-week period.

Pre-eclampsia: a possible link with low vitamin D levels
Professor Mark Kilby at the University of Birmingham is investigating the link between pre-eclampsia and vitamin D deficiency. Up to eight per cent of pregnant women worldwide develop this serious condition, which is a leading cause of death and illness in both mothers and babies.3

The project is focusing on effects of the nutrient within the human placenta and has been awarded £182,012 over three years by Action Medical Research. Professor Kilby’s work could eventually lead to clinical trials to find out whether taking vitamin D supplements during pregnancy helps prevent pre-eclampsia.

“Estimates suggest one in six babies in special care units in the UK are there because their mother developed pre-eclampsia during pregnancy.4 Increasing evidence suggests there is an association between the condition and vitamin D deficiency," says Professor Kilby. "Up to 95 per cent of pregnant women in the UK may have low vitamin D levels5.”

There are few signs and symptoms of pre-eclampsia, so it can go undiagnosed until it becomes severe when pregnant women can suffer high blood pressure, convulsions, strokes, liver and kidney failure, and life-threatening bleeding. In the UK, antenatal check-ups mean the most serious symptoms are rare, but several hundred babies and around six women still die here each year from complications caused by pre-eclampsia.3

Treatment can help tackle some symptoms, lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of convulsions. However, it does not slow the underlying progression of the disease. The only way to cure pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby early, bringing its own risks. Also, the babies may be worryingly small at birth – women with pre-eclampsia are thought to have placentas that do not work properly so their babies do not always grow very well in the womb.

Professor Kilby is measuring vitamin D levels in blood and placentas from pregnant women, comparing levels in women with and without pre-eclampsia.

He is also investigating whether vitamin D affects how the placenta develops and interacts with the mother’s blood vessels in the women during pregnancy. Vitamin D also appears important in influencing how the immune system works within the placenta.
“We are exploring the molecular mechanisms by which low vitamin D levels might lead to pre-eclampsia within the human placenta and in the laboratory," says Professor Kilby.

Helping fund vital research
None of our work would be possible without the generosity of people who make donations, raise funds and take part in events, as well as our trust and corporate partners.

Dr Caroline Johnston, Research Evaluation Manager, said: “At Action Medical Research we are determined to stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We know that medical research can save and change children’s lives. The charity finds and funds some of the best medical research in the world for the benefit of babies, children and young people.

“Our gold standard scientific review process ensures that we only fund the best doctors and researchers in children’s hospitals, specialist units and universities across the UK.”

- ENDS -

References
1. Das G et al. Hypovitaminosis D among healthy adolescent girls attending an inner city school. Arch Dis Child 2006; 91: 569-72.
2. Wharton B et al. Rickets. Lancet 2003; 362: 1389-400.
3. Steegers EA, von Dadelszen P, Duvekot JJ, Pijnenborg R. Pre-eclampsia. Lancet. 2010;376(9741):631-44
4. Annual Report. Birmingham Women’s Foundation Trust, November 2011.
5. Holmes VA et al. Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency in pregnant women: a longitudinal study. Br J Nutr 2009; 102(6): 876-81.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

For further information please contact:
Toni Slater, Interim Communications Manager
T: 01403 327478
E: tslater@action.org.uk
W: action.org.uk

Action Medical Research - the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children - is celebrating 60 years of vital research in 2012. We’ve been funding medical breakthroughs since we began in 1952 and have spent more than £100 million on research that has helped save thousands of children’s lives and changed many more. Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:

• tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
• helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
• targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children

But there is still so much more to do. Make 2012 a special year and help fund more life-changing research for some of the UK’s sickest babies and children.

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