The Nation's Health + [vitamin D]

vitamin D: Death of a $7 billion industry

Vitamin D has taken its place as a crucial ingredient for coronary plaque control and control of CT heart scan scores.

Vitamin D replacement is also crucial for bone health, particularly the prevention of osteoporosis. But conversations about vitamin D replacement to true healthy levels is notably absent from the conversation on treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. Yes, you will find a small dose of vitamin D in calcium tablets and in multivitamins. Those of us who check blood levels of 25-OH-vitamin D3 in patients will tell you: They don't work. These are unabsorbable forms of vitamin D and at trivial doses. There was an attempt to give this issue a little cursory attention when a small dose of vitamin D was added to Fosamax (Fosamax D).

There are an estimated 50 million Americans with various degrees of osteoporosis. It's numbers like this that make the drug manufacturers salivate. Osteoporosis treatment is also chronic. This is among the holy grails of the drug industry: developing agents for widespread ailments that require long-term treatment that extends over years. That's a lot more profitable than 10 days of antibiotics that are over and done with in one treament course.

The osteoporosis market now stands at $7 billion per year and is expected to grow 6-7% per year, according to industry analysts. Drugs like Fosamax, Evista, and Actonel will eventually be replaced by Boniva, Eclasta, and bazedoxifene, and later by AMG-172 and balicatib. Monthly costs for these drugs can be $70 or more per month, sometimes several hundred dollars. (Experience has shown that the introduction of new drugs does not necessarily mean that other drugs will drop in price.)

Here's a clinical trial I'd like to see performed: Vitamin D restored to healthy levels of 50-100 ng/ml over an extended period and compared to a group treated with placebo. My prediction is that there will be dramatic differences in bone density. (Small studies have been performed, but no large, long-term trials of the sort that would yield real firepower.) Or, how about vitamin D to true therapeutic levels over 5 years compared head-to-head with one of the drugs. My prediction: little difference.

Vitamin D also provides an enormous panel of health benefits beyond restoration of bone density, like rise in HDL, drop in triglycerides, facilitation of control over CT heart scan scores, drop in fracture risk, drop in blood pressure and C-reactive protein, reduction in risk for colon, prostate, and breast cancer. None of the drugs can hope to provide any of these effects, except a drop in fracture risk.

Vitamin D usually costs around $2 per month. I doubt that such trials will be performed. If I were a manufacturer of osteoporosis drugs and my career success was dependent on the increasing revenues of these drugs, I would be quaking in my shoes, hoping that the public does not learn what a powerful tool good old vitamin D is. But if you are an individual just looking for health tools, vitamin D is, in my view, amongst the most powerful natural, nutritional tools you have available with outsized health benefits.