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Ophthalmic Genet. 2002 Sep;23(3):137-56.

Vitamin D analogs, a new treatment for retinoblastoma: The first Ellsworth Lecture.

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Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences, School of Medicine, Madison, WI 53792-3284, USA.



This lecture honors the memory of Dr. Robert M. Ellsworth, an important figure in the development of current treatments of retinoblastoma (RB), and reviews our studies of vitamin D analogs as treatments for retinoblastoma in two experimental mouse models. We identified vitamin D receptors in retinoblastoma and examined the effectiveness and mechanism of action of these analogs.


Reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) amplification was used to detect vitamin D receptor mRNAs in human and mouse retinoblastomas. The effectiveness and toxicity of vitamin D(2), calcitriol, and synthetic analogs were studied in the athymic/Y-79 xenograft and transgenic mouse models of RB. Dosing was 5X/week for five weeks. Dose-response studies focused on tumor inhibition; toxicity studies investigated survival and serum calcium. The mechanism of action of vitamin D was investigated using terminal transferase dUTP labeling 3'-overhang ligation to measure apoptosis; immunohistochemistry measured p53-dependent gene expression and cell proliferation.


Vitamin D receptor mRNAs were detectable in Y-79 RB cells, LH beta-Tag tumors, and human RB specimens using RT-PCR. Calcitriol inhibited cell growth in vitro. Calcitriol and vitamin D(2) inhibited in vivo growth in xenograft and transgenic models, but therapeutic levels were toxic due to hypercalcemia. Two analogs, 16,23-D(3) and 1 alpha-OH-D( 2), inhibited tumors in animal models of RB with reduced toxicity. The mechanism of action appears related to increased p53-related gene expression resulting in increased apoptosis.


16,23-D(3) and 1 alpha-OH-D(2) are effective in tumor reduction in two mouse models of RB with low toxicity. These results warrant initiating phase 1 and phase 2 clinical studies in children.

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