SCIENTISTS have discovered that vitamin D can “dramatically” affect the immune system and could make people less susceptible to diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh say their study has shed light on how vitamin D deficiency may influence the risk of autoimmune diseases.

The body produces vitamin D in response to sunlight and the scientists investigated how it affects a mechanism in the immune system – dendritic cells’ ability to activate T cells. In healthy people, T cells play a crucial role in helping fight infection, but in people who suffer from autoimmune diseases, they can start to attack the body’s own tissues.

READ MORE: Type 2 diabetes risk may be increased by prostate disease drug

Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which are nutrients required to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.

A lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.

By studying cells from both mice and humans, researchers found vitamin D caused dendritic cells to produce more of a molecule called CD31 on their surface, and that this hindered the activation of T cells.

CD31 was seen to prevent the two cell types from making a stable contact – an essential part of the activation process – and the resulting immune reaction was far reduced.

Common autoimmune conditions include type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

READ MORE: Here’s one simple way to improve mental healthcare

There is currently no known cure for MS, although its symptoms can be treated in certain cases.

Professor Richard Mellanby, of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research, spoke of the significance of the finding.

“Low vitamin D status has long been implicated as a significant risk factor for the development of several autoimmune diseases,” he said.

“Our study reveals one way in which vitamin D metabolites can dramatically influence the immune system.”

The study, published in Frontiers of Immunology, was funded by the Medical Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council and Wellcome.