It is now well established that, in addition to its central role in the maintenance of extracellular calcium levels and bone mineralization, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) (1,25(OH)(2)D(3)), the active form of vitamin D, also acts as a modulator of cell growth and differentiation in a number of cell types, including breast cancer cells. The anti-proliferative effects of 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) have been linked to suppression of growth stimulatory signals and potentiation of growth inhibitory signals, which lead to changes in cell cycle regulators such as p21(WAF-1/CIP1) and p27(kip1), cyclins and retinoblastoma protein as well as induction of apoptosis. Such studies have led to interest in the potential use of 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) in the treatment or prevention of certain cancers. Since this approach is limited by the tendency of 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) to cause hypercalcaemia, synthetic vitamin D analogues have been developed which display separation of the growth regulating effects from calcium mobilizing actions. This review examines mechanisms by which 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) and its active analogues exert both anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic effects and describes some of the synthetic analogues that have been shown to be of particular interest in relation to breast cancer.
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