There is growing evidence that vitamin D is related to chronic hepatitis C (CHC) pathogenicity. We analyzed the relationship of vitamin D status with advanced liver fibrosis (ALF) in CHC treatment-naïve patients and sustained virologic response (SVR) in CHC patients on pegylated interferon alpha plus ribavirin (pegIFNα/ribavirin) therapy. We performed a meta-analysis of all eligible studies published to date (April, 2014) in PubMed, SCOPUS, LILACS, and the Cochrane Library, assessing plasma/serum vitamin D levels related to ALF and/or SVR. Pooled odds ratios (ORs) were estimated by either fixed or random effects models. Fourteen studies were selected from the literature search, seven for ALF (1,083 patients) and 11 for SVR (2,672 patients). For liver fibrosis, low vitamin D status was related to a diagnosis of ALF, with the cutoffs of 10 ng/mL (OR = 2.37, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.20, 4.72) and 30 ng/mL (OR = 2.22, 95% CI = 1.24, 3.97) being significant, and a near-significance for 20 ng/mL (OR = 1.44, 95% CI = 0.99, 2.12). Regarding SVR, a significant heterogeneity among studies was found (P < 0.001), and we only found a significant association with SVR for a vitamin D cutoff of 20 ng/mL (OR = 0.53, 95% CI = 0.31, 0.91). When meta-analysis was performed excluding the outliers, significant pooled ORs were found for all patients (10 ng/mL [OR = 0.48, 95% CI = 0.34, 0.67] and 20 ng/mL [OR = 0.58, 95% CI = 0.45, 0.76]) and GT1/4 patients (10 ng/mL [OR = 0.53, 95% CI = 0.34, 0.81] and 20 ng/mL [OR = 0.54, 95% CI = 0.39, 0.74]). Conclusion: Low vitamin D status in CHC patients is associated with a higher likelihood of having ALF and lower odds of achieving SVR following pegIFNα/ribavirin therapy. (Hepatology 2014;60:1541–1550)
Nearly 200 million people worldwide are chronically infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV), which leads to the development of cirrhosis, endstage liver disease, hepatocellular carcinoma, and liver transplantation. Advanced liver fibrosis (ALF) in chronic hepatitis C (CHC) is believed to be progressive and largely irreversible. Such fibrosis progression is probably due to multifactorial interactions between viral and host characteristics such as age at HCV infection, gender, daily alcohol intake, intravenous drug use, obesity, metabolic syndrome, HCV genotype, and coinfection by other viral pathogens such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Throughout the past decade, CHC therapy has consisted of pegylated interferon alpha plus ribavirin (pegIFNα/ribavirin). This treatment produces rates of sustained virologic response (SVR) of around 40-50% in patients infected with HCV genotype (HCV-GT) 1, 60% in HCV-GT 4, and 80% in HCV-GT 2/3. Additionally, recent analyses have revealed that the use of pegIFNα/ribavirin in HIV/HCV-coinfected patients may provide SVR rates which approximate those of HCV-monoinfected patients. Current CHC therapy involves new direct-acting antivirals plus pegIFNα/ribavirin, which has further improved the SVR rate. Several host factors that influence the efficacy of IFN therapies have been identified, including age, sex, liver fibrosis, HCV genotype, HCV viral load, interleukin-28B (IL28B) polymorphisms, and obesity. However, an unexplained variability in HCV treatment outcomes still remains.
There is growing evidence that vitamin D status is related to chronic liver disease. The vitamin D receptor (VDR) is widely expressed in the liver and its expression is negatively associated with the severity of liver histology in CHC patients. Moreover, vitamin D has antiproliferative and antifibrotic effects on the liver, and may have potential therapeutic value.
Vitamin D is produced naturally during exposure to ultraviolet B radiation. It is then metabolized in the liver forming 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D), which is later metabolized to the active form, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D (1,25(OH)2D), in the kidneys. In the blood, 25(OH)D is the main circulating form of vitamin D, and its concentration in plasma is the most reliable indicator of vitamin D status. There is consensus that levels of 25(OH)D below 25 nmol/L (10 ng/mL) are qualified as deficient, and that over 75 nmol/L (30 ng/mL) may be required for optimal health. In HCV infection, vitamin D status has been associated with CHC-related outcomes such as liver fibrosis progression in treatment-naïve patients and SVR in patients on pegIFNα/ribavirin therapy. This evidence suggests the potential for vitamin D supplementation as a preventive and/or early treatment strategy for CHC.
Recently, a many publications have reported on vitamin D status and CHC, but some conflicting conclusions have been reached. To our knowledge, only one meta-analysis has been published to date about the association between vitamin D and SVR, but it only involved a literature search through March 2012. This study did not analyze liver fibrosis or any other factors that might affect the relationship between the study factor and outcome. For that reason, our aim was to carefully analyze the relationship between vitamin D status and ALF in HCV treatment-naïve patients and SVR in HCV-infected patients on pegIFNα/ribavirin therapy, by conducting a meta-analysis of all eligible studies published to date (April, 2014).
The two major results of our meta-analysis results were: (1) a significant direct association between plasma vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency and ALF and (2) a significant inverse association between low vitamin D status and achieving a successful virologic response to pegIFNα/RBV therapy.
HCV-infected subjects usually have vitamin D deficiencies, which are related to liver disease severity and a lower chance of responding to pegIFNα/RBV therapy.[7, 9] However, there is inconsistency in the published data, possibly due to the heterogeneity in the study designs, such as characteristics of patients (HCV infection or HIV/HCV coinfection, ethnicity), characteristics of HCV infection (genotype), and characteristics of vitamin D assessment (seasonality, cutoff values, and methodology). For this reason, our meta-analysis focused on displaying general conclusions about the trend of these associations (overall OR), while serving as a robust tool to investigate heterogeneous results.
Based on the global analysis, there was a significant association between suboptimal vitamin D levels and ALF. However, not all studies detected significant differences between groups, perhaps due to the different criteria considered in each individual study. However, the heterogeneity between studies was low and the covariates included in the meta-analysis did not have significant values (ethnic origin, study design, HCV genotype, HIV coinfection, vitamin D cutoff value, and methodology to measure vitamin D).
The role of vitamin D in CHC patients is controversial and the mechanisms by which these associations occur are not well established. On the one hand, since the liver is responsible for 25(OH)D production, patients with liver injury may have low levels of 25(OH)D due to low vitamin D absorption and impaired 25(OH)D synthesis. However, liver function needs to be severely compromised for this impairment to occur. On the other hand, low vitamin D levels have been associated with the more severe histologic changes in liver disease. This effect could be explained by the antiproliferative and antifibrotic effects of vitamin D on the liver and the role of vitamin D as an immune modulator that reduces inflammation and enhances protective immune responses. Thus, it probably is a feedback mechanism. Severe liver failure impairs hydroxylation of vitamin D and causes vitamin D deficiency, which in turn increases hepatic fibrosis, leading to liver failure. However, since almost all of the included studies have a cross-sectional design, it is impossible to dissect the temporal relationship between 25(OH)D levels and liver disease severity.
Interestingly, severe liver disease is usually associated with vitamin D deficiency, while ALF usually results in a lower SVR rate in CHC patients on HCV therapy. Therefore, it would be expected that vitamin D levels would be associated with SVR. In our meta-analysis, we found a general trend towards a direct relationship between low vitamin D levels and decreased SVR rate. However, this is not always so, for example, not for all HCV genotypes nor for all vitamin D cutoffs. This may be due to the degree of heterogeneity detected during the analysis of SVR (P < 0.05; I2 > 50%). Additionally, ethnicity was detected as a covariate that affects the results found in the SVR meta-analysis. In fact, when the meta-analysis was performed excluding the four outlier articles (Mohamed et al., Weintraub et al., Terrier et al., and Terrier et al.), only patients of Caucasian ethnicity remained. As a consequence, the heterogeneity disappeared and the statistical associations were stronger. Thus, low vitamin D levels were linked to lower odds of achieving SVR after pegIFNα/RBV therapy for all patients as well as for patients infected with HCV-GT 1/4 (difficult-to-treat). On the other hand, this meta-analysis did not detect significant associations for HCV-GT2/3 (easy-to-treat), possibly due to the smaller number of patients with these HCV genotypes and the high SVR rate. Another hypothesized cause of heterogeneity was the presence of HIV coinfection. Terrier et al. detected a lack of significant association between vitamin D levels and response to pegIFNα/RBV therapy in HIV/HCV coinfected patients. This discordancy could be due to the more complex situation of HIV/HCV coinfected patients. However, although vitamin D metabolism is affected by HIV infection and combined antiretroviral therapy (cART), we found similar association values for HCV monoinfected and HIV coinfected patients. In fact, HIV coinfection was not detected as a significant covariate in meta-regression analysis.
The major source of vitamin D is the exposure to natural sunlight, and therefore, the major cause of vitamin D deficiency is inadequate exposure to sunlight. Thus, the influence of race, country latitude or study region, and seasonality in vitamin D status have been previously described. People with a naturally dark skin tone have natural sun protection and require at least three to five times longer exposure to make the same amount of vitamin D as a person with a white skin tone. Besides, vitamin D deficiency has been proposed as a cause of the racial differences in response rates to antiviral therapy for CHC.[33, 43] Moreover, the season variability had a substantial impact on 25(OH) levels, but, unfortunately, most studies did not establish the relationship between the seasonal levels of vitamin D and the outcome variables. Only four items studied this effect, finding that both HCV-infected individuals[29, 34] and HIV/HCV-coinfected patients[23, 25] suffered vitamin D insufficiency during all seasons. The other factor that might influence is the study region, but we did not find values in the meta-regression.
In this meta-analysis, a high prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency (25(OH)D <30 ng/mL) and deficiency (25(OH)D <10 ng/mL) was found in HCV-infected patients. Vitamin D deficiency is almost universal among patients with chronic liver disease, and specifically in HCV-infected patients,[45-47] as well as in HIV/HCV-coinfected patients.[23, 28, 30] Besides, prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in HCV-infected and HIV/HCV-coinfected patients is higher than in the general population. However, the prevalence of insufficiency or deficiency of vitamin D has been found in the general population is not so far from the values found in patients infected with HCV. In fact, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) provides evidence of low vitamin D status, as defined by a plasma 25(OH)D concentration less than 10 ng/mL, in most age groups in the United Kingdom population, and highlights a greater risk of vitamin D deficiency in population subgroups. Moreover, a major point of controversy is the establishment of optimal 25(OH)D levels. The latest recommendations suggest that a 25(OH)D level over 20 ng/mL is sufficient to meet the vitamin D requirement. However, the Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline (ESCPG) suggested that vitamin D requirements may be greater for sick patients than for healthy individuals and blood vitamin D levels above 30 ng/mL may have additional health benefits in reducing the risk of various disease conditions.
Moreover, the ESCPG also recommended screening for vitamin D deficiency in individuals at risk for deficiency, including ones with hepatic failure, and supplementation with vitamin D for these deficient patients. In our meta-analysis, the cutoff 10 ng/mL showed higher pooled OR for liver fibrosis and SVR, although the cutoff 30 ng/mL also showed significant values for ALF and was nearly significant for SVR. Thus, our study suggests that the cutoff 30 ng/mL may be an appropriate threshold to prevent fibrosis and HCV therapy failure. In CHC patients, vitamin D supplementation has been suggested as a preventive and/or early treatment strategy. Another major point is the vitamin D supplementation to improve the SVR rate in patients treated with pegIFNα/ribavirin. However, there are conflicting data in the scientific literature. Thus, a small number of studies have reported the positive impact of vitamin D supplementation on SVR rates in patients treated with pegIFNα/ribavirin.[36, 48-50] However, further clinical investigations on the effect of vitamin D supplementation in treating CHC are needed to confirm this item.
Finally, in order to properly interpret our results, some considerations have to be taken into account. First, our meta-analysis was performed using the unadjusted raw data provided from each study, whereas most of the results given by the authors were adjusted by age, gender, HCV viral load, and/or other factors. For this reason, the pooled ORs may differ slightly from those cited by the original articles. Second, the seasonal differences in vitamin D levels, dietary intake, polymorphisms of vitamin D hydroxylating enzymes, and other variables involved in vitamin D metabolism, such as parathyroid hormone, have not been considered. IL28B polymorphisms have not been taken into account for evaluating SVR. Third, only data of blood 25(OH)D levels were used to evaluate vitamin D status rather than the 1,25(OH)2D assay. The serum 1,25(OH)2D assay is only recommended for monitoring certain conditions, such as acquired and inherited disorders of vitamin D and phosphate metabolism.[42, 44] Fourth, multiple methodologies for measuring 25(OH)D were used, including enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), radioimmunoassay (RIA), high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectroscopy. However, the vitamin D detection methodology was not a source of heterogeneity in this meta-analysis. Fifth, the majority of the studies had a cross-sectional design and the number of studies in some subgroup analyses was small, which might have led to weak results. Consequently, these results should be interpreted with caution.
In conclusion, this meta-analysis shows that a low vitamin D status in CHC patients is associated with a higher likelihood of having ALF and lower odds of achieving SVR, suggesting the utility of vitamin D screening in HCV-infected patients.