The faux science journal Integrative Veterinary Care has recently been pushing a supplement called Vivamune on their Facebook page, so I thought I’d investigate and see what the product was about. It turned out to be an interesting look into the business side of the supplement market.
Vivamune, currently marketed by a company called Avivagen, turns out to be a repackaging of Oximunol, a supplement marketed by a company call Chemaphor (of which Avivagen is a subsidiary). I wrote about Oximunol/Vivamune way back in 2010, and at the time the product was a nice example of marketing outstripping science in the supplement arena. Sadly, the changes in name, ownership, and marketing strategy that have occurred since, and even the scant additional research published in the intervening 5 years, have not changed the basic fact that this product relies on taking a tiny bit of promising but limited science and using it to cash in on the hopes and fears of pet owners.
What is Vivamune/Oximunol?
The core idea behind this supplement is a number of chemicals collectively identified as OxC-beta by the company. These are produced by oxidation of beta-carotene, the pigment that gives carrots their characteristic color and which is a precursor of Vitamin A. The theory, which is perfectly plausible, is that these compounds have biological effects which might enhance the function of the immune system and influence inflammation. However, as usual the statements made by the company in its marketing are much more exciting and dramatic than this humble hypothesis.
Vibrant health made simple
Revolutionary immune supporting active ingredient
Many beneficial health effects
Promotes normal mobility, and relieves occasional stiffness especially in older pets
Soothes skin-related issues associated with seasonal allergies
In pets, OxC-beta supports overall vitality and energy, mobility and joint function, as well as a healthy skin, coat and gut.
Results observed in food animals include healthier growth, better utilization of feed and decreased morbidity. In food animals, it is intended that use of OxC-beta avoids the feeding of antibiotics.
The claims made are pretty vague, as required both by supplement regulations which allow only “support” claims rather than specific treatment claims and also, as we will see, by the lack of specific evidence to support more specific claims. Nevertheless, the implication of wide-ranging and dramatic health benefits is clear. All the usual marketing buzzwords can be found as well, including “holistic,” “natural,” “organic,” and so on. The company does appear, however, to have abandoned some of the language used in marketing Oximunol which suggested their product might have a role in preventing or treating cancer.
Though the company is still marketing to pet owners, the emphasis appears to be on the potentially much more lucrative livestock market, and ultimately the human supplement market. The goal is apparently to market OxC-beta as a growth promoter in food animals, to replace the use of antibiotics for this purpose, which is being limited and in some cases banned by regulatory authorities due to concerns about antibiotic-resistance.
“In OxC-beta, we have discovered a natural alternative technology to antibiotics that we’re now targeting to improve productivity in livestock,” president and CEO, Cameron Groome, says… “We can quickly turn on enough OxC-beta production to generate tens of millions of dollars of revenue,” Mr. Groome suggests. “What we need to do is complete the sales cycle with those companies that can become multimillion dollar customers. That’s what we’re doing now…”
Does It Work?
The Vivamune/Oximunol marketing emphasizes the scientific credentials of the company’s leaders and the scientific basis for their product and claims:
Rigorously researched and developed in Canada by a dedicated team of chemists, biochemists and veterinary immunologists
We have already had three peer-reviewed scientific papers published in leading journals on its chemistry and biology
The reality is a bit less impressive.
My original article on Oximunol was prompted by a press release suggesting an in-house “clinical trial” had been conducted on the product and that “A full report of the study is being prepared for submission for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.” I have not been able to find any evidence that this study has been published beyond the company’s own marketing statements in the intervening five years.
There are a number of published studies referred to on various Avivagen web pages and in other press releases. One paper in PLOS One presents some in vitro and lab mouse data indicating OxC-beta has some physiologic effects. Another study published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research found evidence for some effects of OxC-beta on white blood cells in vitro and in the lungs of Holstein calves. A study in poultry presented at a conference in Korea suggested some protective effects against a bacterial infection of the intestines, and another unpublished Korean study in pigs suggested OxC-beta might have growth promoting properties. The company has announced additional livestock studies in Asia, where it appears to be focusing its marketing efforts.
This research certainly suggests the chemicals in OxC-beta have measurable effects, and that some of these effects might be useful in preventing disease or promoting health. But as usual, the research is preliminary and very limited, and it does not justify widespread use of this supplement, especially in pets. There are still no clinical studies showing any benefits of any kind for dogs and cats, and only the most preliminary studies showing any benefits in food animals that might justify widespread use or effectively replace antibiotics as growth promoters in feed. The exuberance of the advertising has more to do with marketing and profits than with science.
Is It Safe?
As I often have to remind people, the absence of strong evidence for benefits from a medical therapy also means an absence of strong evidence for safety. The use of marketing terms like “natural” and “organic” are not reliable indicators of whether or not a product is safe. And while the chemicals in OxC-beta are derived from a food which, in itself, is safe to eat in reasonable amounts (though you can turn your skin yellow from eating too many carrots) that doesn’t mean the supplement is automatically safe.
Vitamins and other “natural” substances found in foods can cause serious harm if taken in quantities larger than normally found in food. The makers of OxC-beta specifically market the supplement on the basis that it contains far more of the chemicals they are interested in that one could get from a normal diet: “ While the process of carotenoid oxidation occurs naturally in the plant world (and to at least some extent in animals), the products of that oxidation reaction are present in such minuscule amounts that it would be physically impossible to get the full benefit just by increasing vegetable consumption.” The possibility of some risk cannot be ruled out except with appropriate research.
Avivagen claims to have run safety studies on dogs at ten times the recommended dose, but these do not appear to have been published or submitted for any regulatory review. The studies that have been published in other species do not report any significant side effects, but these are limited studies on small numbers of animals, which we all know from the experience of the pharmaceutical industry do not always guarantee safety in the much larger and more diverse general population, and most are funded or run by the company marketing the supplement.
The idea that oxidation products of beta-carotene might have beneficial health effects is certainly plausible, and there is some preliminary data to support this. However, this product has been marketed as all-purpose tonic for pets for at least five years under two different names, and the manufacturer has yet to provide any reasonable published evidence of meaningful benefits in dogs and cats. And while there is slightly more evidence to suggest usefulness in some food animals, even this is not robust enough to justify widespread use.
The company repeatedly claims to be committed to a science-based approach and yet clearly acts in ways that have more to do with economic goals than scientific priorities. This is yet another example of the fact, which many users of dietary supplements fail to understand, that companies in the supplement business are no less motivated by profit and no more committed to the welfare of patients than pharmaceutical companies. The fact that they deal in largely unregulated substances they may label “natural” does not make their products safer nor their motives any purer than those of the conventional pharmaceutical business.