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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 18:44 GMT
Cholesterol drugs 'treat osteoporosis'
Hip bone Osteoporosis leads to hip bone fractures

Common cholesterol drugs could be used to treat the brittle bone disease osteoporosis, scientists have said.

The discovery could prove extremely significant as the World Health Organisation has predicted that osteoporosis will become one of the major health problems of the next century.

However, tests have still to be carried out on humans, and it could be years before the drugs are routinely used to treat the disease.


If one could come up with a drug that is able to stimulate bone formation and effectively cure osteoporosis it ought to have a huge impact
Dr Jon Tobias, National Osteoporosis Society advisor
The researchers have discovered that as well as reducing levels of cholesterol in the body, the drugs, known as statins, can stimulate bone growth.

Using the drugs, it may be possible to replace bone that has already deteriorated.

Current therapies for osteoporosis focus on stopping or slowing bone loss and stabilising a person's existing bone mass.

100 million people world-wide are at risk for osteoporosis, particularly postmenopausal women.

The problem is likely to intensify as life expectancy increases.

Osteoporosis causes the bones to lose crucial minerals such as calcium and phosphorus.

As a result, the bone becomes thin and fragile, and is much more likely to break.

The most common problems are hip fractures, and pain and compression in the spine.

The scientists, led by Gregory Mundy, of the company Osteoscreen, identified statins as a possible new treatment following an extensive study of more than 30,000 natural compounds.

The research team applied four different types of statins to bone taken from the skulls of mice and grown in a laboratory culture.

Each of the statins increased bone growth in the cultures two to threefold.

The drugs stimulated the production and activation of osteoblasts, the specialised cells that create new bone.

Most other therapies do not stimulate osteoblast production. They inhibit the action of osteoclasts, the cells which break bone down.

Directly injected

Spine The spine is vulnerable to the effects of osteoporosis
After this initial success, the researchers tested the effects of statins in living animals by injecting the drugs directly into the tissue overlying the skullcaps of mice.

They also administered oral doses of the statins to two groups of female rats, one group with intact ovaries and another group with the ovaries removed to mimic the effects of menopause.

The mice that were directly injected showed an almost 50% increase in new bone formation in the skull after only five days of treatment.

New bone formation was also found in the mice that were given oral doses - but not at the same levels as those injected directly.

Dr Mundy said this could be because statins are designed to zero in on the liver when taken orally.

Although the statins seem to be most effective at building new bone, the researchers could not rule out the possibility that the drugs were also inhibiting the breakdown of bone, which could make them a candidate for osteoporosis prevention as well.

A preliminary analysis that looked back at a group of elderly women taking statins to lower their cholesterol found that these women had higher bone mineral density and less fractures in their hip.

Dr Jon Tobias, a consultant senior lecturer in the rheumatology department at Bristol Royal Infirmary and advisor to the National Osteoporosis Society, said a drug that could stimulate bone growth, rather than simply arrest deterioration, should be more effective at preventing fractures.

He said: "If one could come up with a drug that is able to stimulate bone formation and effectively cure osteoporosis it ought to have a huge impact."

Dr Tobias said the NHS already spent 1bn a year treating osteoporosis and its consequences. He said that often elderly patients required extensive community care after breaking a hip.

The research is published in the journal Science.
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See also:
24 Aug 99 |  Medical notes
Osteoporosis: The facts
30 Nov 99 |  Health
Bone and joint diseases threaten financial crisis
30 Sep 99 |  Health
Onions 'prevent brittle bones'
16 Sep 99 |  Health
Salt linked to osteoporosis

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