British experts have found that vitamin D could help the body fight infections of deadly tuberculosis.
Nearly 1.5 million people are killed by the infection every year and there are concerns some cases are becoming untreatable.
A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed patients recovered more quickly when given both the vitamin and antibiotics.
More tests would be needed before it could be given to patients routinely.
The idea of using vitamin D, also known as sunshine vitamin, to treat tuberculosis (TB) harks back to some of the earliest treatments for the lung infection.
Before antibiotics were discovered, TB patients were prescribed “forced sunbathing”, known as heliotherapy, which increased vitamin D production.
However, the treatment disappeared when antibiotics proved successful at treating the disease.
This study on 95 patients, conducted at hospitals across London, combined antibiotics with vitamin D pills.
It showed that recovery was almost two weeks faster when vitamin D was added. Patients who stuck to the regimen cleared the infection in 23 days on average, while it took patients 36 days if they were given antibiotics and a dummy sugar pill.
Dr. Adrian Martineau, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “This isn’t going to replace antibiotics, but it may be a useful extra weapon.
“It looks promising, but we need slightly stronger evidence.”
Trials in more patients, as well as studies looking at the best dose and if different forms of vitamin D are better, will be needed before the vitamin could be used by doctors.
Vitamin D appears to work by calming inflammation during the infection. An inflammatory response is an important part of the body’s response to infection.
During TB infection, it breaks down some of the scaffolding in the lungs letting more infection-fighting white blood cells in. However, this also creates tiny cavities in the lungs in which TB bacteria can camp out.
“If we can help these cavities to heal more quickly, then patients should be infectious for a shorter period of time, and they may also suffer less lung damage,” Dr. Adrian Martineau said.
The doctors suggested this might also help in other lung diseases such as pneumonia and sepsis.
One in three people have low levels of tuberculosis bacteria in their lungs and have no symptoms, known as latent tuberculosis. However, this would turn to full blown TB in about 10% of people.