To further clarify and/or develop calcium and vitamin D as chemopreventive agents against colorectal cancer in humans, understand the mechanisms by which these agents reduce risk for the disease, and develop "treatable" biomarkers of risk for colorectal cancer, we conducted a pilot, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, 2 x 2 factorial clinical trial to test the effects of calcium and vitamin D3, alone and in combination on markers of apoptosis, in the normal colorectal mucosa. Ninety-two men and women with at least one pathology-confirmed colorectal adenoma were treated with 2.0 g/d calcium or 800 IU/d vitamin D3, alone or in combination, versus placebo over 6 months. Overall expression and colorectal crypt distributions of Bcl-2 (an apoptosis inhibitor) and Bax (an apoptosis promoter) in biopsies of normal-appearing rectal mucosa were detected by automated immunohistochemistry and quantified by image analysis. After 6 months of treatment, Bax expression along the full lengths of crypts increased 56% (P = 0.02) in the vitamin D group and 33% in both the calcium (P = 0.31) and calcium plus vitamin D (P = 0.36) groups relative to the placebo group. The vitamin D treatment effect was more pronounced in the upper 40%, or differentiation zone, of crypts (80%; P = 0.01). There were no statistically significant treatment effects on Bcl-2 expression. Overall, these preliminary results suggest that calcium and vitamin D, individually or together, may enhance apoptosis in the normal human colorectal epithelium, and the strongest treatment effects may be vitamin D related and in the upper sections of the colorectal crypts.