Long before antibiotics were developed, tuberculosis patients were often sent to sanatoriums, where treatment included soaking for hours in the sun. As treatments go, it was far inferior to the antibiotics that were eventually developed. However, new research suggests that the effects of all that sunlight on TB patients shouldn t be dismissed. Exposure to sunlight, of course, leads to the body s production of vitamin D, and a studyled by Dr. Anna Coussens from Britain s National Institute of Medical Research has found that high doses of this vitamin, administered alongside antibiotic treatment, seems to help patients recover more quickly from the infectious lung disease.
The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 95 TB patients who were on standard antibiotic treatment. For the first eight weeks of treatment, half the patients received high doses of vitamin D (four bi-weekly doses of 2.5 mg vitamin D3), while the other half took a placebo. By measuring signs of inflammation in patients blood samples, the researchers were able to see how the vitamin D affected immune responses. Notably, a significant number of these inflammatory markers dropped further and faster in the patients receiving vitamin D supplementation. Furthermore, the TB bacterium coughed up from deep in the lungs of patients cleared faster in those taking vitamin D an average of 23 days, versus the 36 days for those patients on placebo.
The researchers believe that high doses of vitamin D mute the body s inflammatory response to infection, which reduces damage to the lungs. The thought is that healing this tissue damage more quickly will lead to a shorter infectious period and less lung damage overall. Because vitamin D does not appear to interfere with the action of antibiotics, the researchers suggests that such supplementation might also be beneficial to patients being treated for diseases such as pneumonia, sepsis, and other lung infections.
The latest research comes out of a call for new and more effective treatments of tuberculosis, since the disease which affected 8.8 million people worldwide in 2010 alone has developed many drug-resistant strains.
Of course, this is not an answer to drug-resistant tuberculosis, says ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava. Nevertheless, the increased efficacy of treatment that high-dose vitamin D seems to confer is not to be dismissed: Cutting down healing time and the infectious period could have an impact on the spread of the disease. She also notes the sound design of the prospective, placebo-controlled study, and hopes to see it replicated and expanded.