African American Skin Color Linked to Vitamin D Deficiency, Which Augments Cancer Risk

There might be a link between skin color and risk of cancer, according to a study published in PLOS Genetics.

African Americans are largely vitamin D deficient, and researchers are now investigating whether it would be possible for physicians to look at an African American’s skin color, and with the help of other determinants, be able to prescribe vitamin D supplements to reduce the risk of developing prostate, colon, rectum, or breast cancer.

“We should not shy from this new study looking at the genetics of skin color and its effects on vitamin D deficiency because being ‘colorblind’ is what has led to the widespread health disparities that we as a society are now trying to address,” said Rick Kittles, Ph.D., director of the Division of Health Equities at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, via a press release.

“Skin color has strong social and biological significance — social because of race and racism and biological because over 70% of African Americans are vitamin D deficient, resulting in increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease,” Kittles added.

In this study, researchers assessed of 1,076 African Americans to analyze the genetics of skin pigmentation in this group, replicate results and test if the identified genetic variants are linked to vitamin D deficiency in African Americans. It marked the first genome-wide association study of skin pigmentation in African Americans, researchers said.

According to the researchers, scientists uncovered three regions (SLC24A5, SLC45A2 and OCA2) in the genes of African Americans with strong links to skin color and severe vitamin D deficiency. Specifically, the genetic variant rs2675345  showed the strongest link with skin pigmentation and vitamin D deficiency.


“This study is an example of the interplay of race and skin color on health and how if we ignore things such as the color of a person’s skin, we may be ignoring potential medical issues, thus contributing to health care disparities,” Kittles said of the researchers.

“Our study provides new knowledge about an easily modifiable factor such as vitamin D supplementation and inherited genetic factors affecting vitamin D deficiency in African Americans. With more research, in the future doctors could offer patients of color with an inexpensive way to reduce their risk of vitamin deficiency, which ultimately could help protect against certain cancers.”