Sunday, April 25, 2004

Dermatologists run amok: Boston University medical school professor Dr. Michael Holick has been fired by the Department of Dermatology in what appears to be a gross violation of academic freedom. Dr. Holick, an expert in Vitamin D metabolism and sunlight, ran afoul of the Dermatology Department chairman because of the following:
...Holick recommends people spend a few minutes two to three times a week, depending on skin type, exposed to the sun or lying under a sun lamp (without sun cream) to ensure they get enough vitamin D.

He says he does not advocate tanning or sun worship but "moderate" exposure to the sun sufficient to gain its benefits.

"I am advocating common sense, something often in short supply in America's approach to health. Our society doesn't seem to believe in a happy medium, only in extremes. The notion that we have to protect ourselves from the sun all the time is misguided and unhealthy." (Link to article.)
Holick cites a number of benefits to such moderate sunlight exposure, including prevention of osteoporosis, decreased levels of depression, and some new work indicating decreased risk of breast and prostate cancers.

This aroused a great deal of controversy in the academic dermatology community. For example, Boni E. Elewski, president of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD),
...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..."
The AAD also stated that,
...Holick was irresponsible and compared his advice on the benefits of the sun to suggesting that smoking might be used to combat anxiety.
Dr. Barbara Gilchrist, chairwoman of the Department of Dermatology defended her decision to fire him as follows:
I would ask anyone to resign his appointment in the department if I felt that person was conducting himself in a way that was professionally irresponsible, potentially dangerous to the public and not conforming to what I think are very high standards for reporting scientific information.
As a physician myself, I believe this extreme "zero-tolerance" approach to sunlight to be patently absurd. More importantly, as Professor James Fleet (a Vitamin D and nutrition expert at Purdue University) observed,
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.
One claim made against Dr. Holick is that he has financial links to the indoor tanning industry. However, Holick "strongly denies any financial conflict in his research and says the tanning association did not directly support the book." Although Holick has been fired by the Department of Dermatology, he still retains his other appointments in the medical school , including his directorship of the Vitamin D Laboratory.

More information is available in these article from the Boston Globe, The Scientist, and IOL.