Scientists have indicated that a link between Vitamin D and the Multiple sclerosis suceptibility gene could impact the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS).
Researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of British Columbia also say that their study suggests that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy, and the early years, may increase the risk of the offspring developing MS later in life.
A research article in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics reveals that the study was funded by the UK's MS Society, the MS Society of Canada, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.
It shows that proteins activated by vitamin D in the body bind to a particular DNA sequence, which lies next to the gene variant known as DRB1*1501, and switch on the gene as a consequence.
''In people with the DRB1 variant associated with MS, it seems that vitamin D may play a critical role. If too little of the vitamin is available, the gene may not function properly,'' says co-author Dr Julian Knight.
''We have known for a long time that genes and environment determine MS risk. Here we show that the main environmental risk candidate - vitamin D - and the main gene region are directly linked and interact,'' says Professor George Ebers, University of Oxford.
The researchers reckon that vitamin D deficiency in mothers, or even in a previous generation, may lead to altered expression of DRB1*1501 in offspring.
''Our study implies that taking vitamin D supplements during pregnancy and the early years may reduce the risk of a child developing MS in later life,'' says lead author Dr Sreeram Ramagopalan.
''Vitamin D is a safe and relatively cheap supplement with substantial potential health benefits. There is accumulating evidence that it can reduce the risk of developing cancer and offer protection from other autoimmune diseases,'' he adds.
Welcoming the research, MS Society's UK Chief Executive Simon Gillespie said: ''These remarkable results tie together leading theories about the environment, genes and MS but they are only part of the jigsaw. This discovery opens up new avenues of MS research and future experiments will help put the pieces together.''