Vitamin D expert loses post

Boston University dermatologist's views on the benefits of sunlight upset department chair

By | April 16, 2004

Michael Holick, a dermatologist at Boston University, was recently asked to resign from school's department of dermatology because of a book in which he describes the importance of sunlight in boosting vitamin D levels and his ties to the indoor tanning industry.

Holick's book “is an embarrassment for this institution and an embarrassment for him,” department chair Barbara Gilchrest told the Boston Globe. According to the Globe, which first reported the story, Holick was asked to resign from the department of dermatology in February. He has resigned, but continues to teach and to direct the medical center's vitamin D lab, and has not received a pay cut.

Although the benefits of vitamin D in bone health have been long known, new research is emerging that suggests the fat-soluble vitamin may also help prevent different types of cancer. As a result, Holick argues that moderate amounts of sunlight—the main source of vitamin D—are more beneficial than dangerous, and he recommends that fair-skinned people who live in the Boston latitude spend a few sunblock-free minutes a couple of times per week outside, with their skin exposed. He summarizes his thoughts on the issue in The UV Advantage, scheduled to be released in May.

But his thoughts on the issue of whether sunlight helps or hurts have some dermatologists concerned. In a statement to The Scientist, Boni E. Elewski, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, argued that even a few minutes of sunlight exposure can be dangerous, and people can get what they need of the vitamin through supplements. “Any group, organization, or individual that disseminates information encouraging exposure to UV radiation, whether natural or artificial, is doing a disservice to the public,” Elewski said.

Some of Holick's colleagues also found fault in his alliance with the Indoor Tanning Association (ITA), a professional society representing the people working in the $5 billion indoor tanning industry. According to the Globe, Holick unveiled his book during a meeting of the ITA, which has hired a publicist to promote it and has contributed $150,000 to his research over the next 3 years.

Holick has denied that his research is influenced by any financial conflict, and told the Globe that the ITA did not directly support his book.

Some vitamin D experts said that Holick should not have to resign. “If he was fired for his opinion, which is based on science, then it would appear to be a violation of the principles of academic freedom,” James Fleet, who studies nutrition and vitamin D at Purdue University, told The Scientist.

Whether small amounts of sunlight can boost vitamin D intake without raising the risk of cancer “is an issue worth debating,” Fleet said.

Reinhold Vieth of the University of Toronto, who has worked with vitamin D since 1974, said that shunning Holick from the department of dermatology represents a “narrow-minded” approach to health. “It's like a horse with blinkers, and the only thing they see is melanoma,” he told The Scientist.

Vieth said that he received an advance copy of Holick's book courtesy of Uvalux, a Canadian tanning supply company.

Holick, Gilchrist, and the ITA could not be reached for comment.

Addendum (posted April 20, 2004): Following deadline, The Scientist was able to reach Holick for comment. He said that he was "disappointed" and "surprised" when asked to step down because his opinions differed from some of his colleagues'.

"If you don't follow that party line, then they'll make every effort to squelch everything you have to say," he said. Holick denied that his research is influenced by any financial conflict. The ITA is "not telling me the kind of research to do," he said.

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