We break out in a cold sweat upon hearing the word ‘Cancer’. There are a number of reviews of the role of vitamin A and its metabolites (eg, 9-cis-retinoic acid) Continue Reading

We break out in a cold sweat upon hearing the word ‘Cancer’. There are a number of reviews of the role of vitamin A and its metabolites (eg, 9-cis-retinoic acid) in immunity and in host susceptibility to infection. 47-54 These reviews contain citations to the many studies of vitamin A, immunity and infection that will be summarised here. Vitamin A is important for normal differentiation of epithelial tissue and for immune cell maturation and function. Thus, vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired barrier function, altered immune responses and increased susceptibility to a range of infections. Vitamin A-deficient mice show breakdown of the gut barrier and impaired mucus secretion (due to loss of mucus-producing goblet cells), both of which would facilitate entry of pathogens. Many aspects of innate immunity, in addition to barrier function, are modulated by vitamin A and its metabolites. Vitamin A controls neutrophil maturation and in vitamin A deficiency blood neutrophil numbers are increased, but they have impaired phagocytic function. Therefore, the ability of neutrophils to ingest and kill bacteria is impaired. Vitamin A also supports phagocytic activity and oxidative burst of macrophages, so promoting bacterial killing. Natural killer cell activity is diminished by vitamin A deficiency, which would impair antiviral defences. The impact of vitamin A on acquired immunity is less clear and may depend on the exact setting and the vitamin A metabolite involved. Vitamin A controls dendritic cell and CD4+ T lymphocyte maturation and its deficiency alters the balance between T helper 1 and T helper 2 lymphocytes. Studies in experimental model systems indicate that the vitamin A metabolite 9-cis retinoic acid enhances T helper 1 responses. Retinoic acid promotes movement (homing) of T lymphocytes to the gut-associated lymphoid tissue. Interestingly, some gut-associated immune cells are able to synthesise retinoic acid. Retinoic acid is required for CD8+ T lymphocyte survival and proliferation and for normal functioning of B lymphocytes including antibody generation. Thus, vitamin A deficiency can impair the response to vaccination, as discussed elsewhere. 55 In support of this, vitamin A-deficient Indonesian children provided with vitamin A showed a higher antibody response to tetanus vaccination than seen in vitamin A-deficient children. 56 Vitamin A deficiency predisposes to respiratory infections, diarrhoea and severe measles. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of trials in children with vitamin A report reduced all-cause mortality, 57 reduced incidence, morbidity and mortality from measles 57 and from infant diarrhoea, 57 and improved symptoms in acute pneumonia 58 ( table 1 ).

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