Eight years ago, Scott Pierce, a horse doctor, began experimenting with hyaluronic acid as an oral supplement for horses. Veterinarians have traditionally injected the acid into horse joints to treat pain and swelling.
Pierce, who works with Thoroughbreds at Rood and Riddle Veterinary Hospital, concocted a paste with the acid. The oral supplement worked so well on horses that his customers asked for a version for their aging dogs, who could no longer jump into farm trucks. They liked that so much they asked for a version for themselves, Pierce said.
Today, Pierce's experiments are a company, Vetix Inc. In 2008, Vetix sold between $5 million and $6 million of supplements, said Stuart Pierce, Scott's brother and partner. The supplements are for horses, dogs and humans. The company will launch a new product for cats in February, Stuart Pierce said.
The animal supplements are sold under the name Kinetic Technologies. They're available at veterinary offices, Petco, Tractor Supply and PetSmart stores. The human supplements are sold online, under the name HA Concepts.
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Vetix is privately held; together the two brothers own about 60 percent of the business.
Vetix promotes its products for humans in 30-minute infomercials on AM radio stations and on its Web site, where customers such as professional golfer Fuzzy Zoeller testify to what Conquer HA, a gel tab of hyaluronic acid, has done for them.
Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means that the products aren't rigorously tested to see how well they work, the way prescription drugs are.
But the products are popular and, according to the Nutritional Business Journal's Supplement Business Report, supplements generated an estimated $23.4 billion in sales in 2007. The journal expects the market to grow by 4 percent a year.
A marketing ploy
At the beginning, using hyaluronic acid was a marketing ploy, Scott Pierce said. He and Stuart Pierce wanted to make a supplement for horses, and they needed it to stand out among the products that contained glucosomine and chondroitin, other popular supplements for arthritis and joint pain.
Scott Pierce made a paste of all three products and gave the stuff out for free to some of his veterinary customers. Two weeks later the phone calls started to come in. "They'd say, 'Doc, what is this stuff? We've never seen swollen joints recover so quickly," Scott Pierce said.
After doing more research, Pierce developed a gel using just hyaluronic acid.
"Low and behold, it had the same or better effects," Pierce said.
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance in the body, found in large joints in humans. Veterinarians have used it for years, injecting it directly into the joints, and human doctors began doing the same thing more recently.
But injection in humans isn't always successful, said Dr. Christian Lattermann, a professor of sports medicine at the University of Kentucky.
Studies have shown that the injections work in 60 percent to 70 percent of patients.
Studies in humans of other oral hyaluronic products show that a very small amount of the substance ends up in the joints, Lattermann said. There is no scientific evidence that the supplements work, he said.
"That doesn't mean it doesn't work," he said. "We don't have any true scientific evidence."
There are probably people who have gotten significant relief from the product, Lattermann said. But anecdotal evidence doesn't prove that a product works: the placebo effect can account for 20 percent to 40 percent of positive results, he said.
For the Pierces, the supplement business has been a successful venture. They now have more than 20 products for horses, 12 products for dogs, nine for humans and one soon-to-be-released product for cats.
At their Lexington office, they have 12 employees besides themselves. Three of them are family members: their mother, who has worked for the venture from the beginning, their father and their sister.
The supplements are manufactured by other companies out of state. The animal products are distributed from the Lexington office, and the human products are distributed out of Michigan.
So far, horse supplements sell the best, followed by human ones, Scott Pierce said. The horse hyaluronic acid products cost just over $1 a day for the customer. The human products cost about the same, and dog products cost 50 cents a day, Scott Pierce said.
The company is looking into other natural products to add to its line, Scott Pierce said. But the products will have to meet Pierce's requirements.
"Everything we sell and have is something I would take myself," he said.