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Ladies--Read This Before You Take That Bone Drug!

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(Article changed on September 2, 2013 at 09:36)

Medical Expert Tells Why Some Popular Anti-Osteoporosis Drugs May Do More Harm Than Good

Since the first bisphosphonate to prevent postmenopausal osteoporosis, Fosamax, was approved in 1995, the widely prescribed drug class has been linked to jawbone death (osteonecrosis), irregular heartbeat, intractable pain, esophageal cancer, eye disorders and paradoxically, bone fractures. As safety signals have surfaced, warnings have been added to the drugs' labels and the FDA is reviewing how long the drugs can be safely used after it heard testimony about spontaneous fractures in bisphosphonate patients in 2011.

Dr. William Banks Hinshaw received his MD from Albany Medical College, a PhD from Stanford University in Natural Products Chemistry and completed his Residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Albany Medical Center Hospital. Both a devoted researcher and practitioner, he is particularly interested in bone health, is a member of the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research.   Dr. Hinshaw advocates a return to personalized medicine with decreased reliance on pharmacotherapy. We recently sat down with Dr. Hinshaw to ask about his research into the popular bone drugs and his recommendations.

Rosenberg: You recently co-authored two scientific papers that cast serious doubts about the safety of bisphosphonate bone drugs such as Fosamax, Boniva, and Actonel, and Reclast. In one paper [in December's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism ] you and your co-authors examined 81 patients who experienced fractures, sometimes four or five, on the drugs. In another paper [in the January issue of ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters ] you and your co-author suggest the same negative bone effects now emerging with the drugs date back to a disorder seen during the industrial revolution.

Hinshaw: 150 years ago, people who worked around white phosphorus in factories where matches were made in the US and Europe sometimes developed "phossy jaw" (osteonecrosis) and thigh bone fragility similar to bisphosphonate effects we see today. The chemical culprit is likely to have been a substance in the white phosphorus smoke that inhibits an enzyme involved in the process of bone remodeling and bisphosphonates happen to have been innocently developed as synthetic versions of that substance. I have researched this extensively, including US Army reports about white phosphorus smoke which was shown to include large amounts of the culprit substance.

Rosenberg: You're saying women who take these bone drugs actually risk induction of a dread condition of 19th century industrial workers?

Hinshaw: Yes. For a long time, specialists from the medical world have been expressing the opinion and accumulating arguments that something else was the cause of the problems and governments regulators have responded slowly to increasing demand for action.   This is very reminiscent of the 19th century where the jaw problem was causing much misery but was being brought to the attention of the public and the regulatory agencies by slowly accumulating voices contradicting the alternate explanations offered by the manufactures of the profitable matches. But the persistence of some dedicated individuals and a genuine sense of responsibility for the public good eventually led to the restrictive legislation which eliminated the toxic exposure. The United States was the last major nation to regulate the problem, at least a decade after Europe had agreed to do so.

I better get a bone scan by Martha Rosenberg

Rosenberg: Sounds like what is happening with the bone drugs today. Regulatory agencies in England and in Europe recognize the drugs as contributing to fractures, but in the US, the FDA has stopped short of that. They are still highly marketed.

Hinshaw: The bisphosphonates are a very polarizing class of drugs. The enthusiastic industrial support of the clinical trials has created a cadre of dedicated bisphosphonate supporters, convinced that the presumed benefits outweigh any possible risk. Many appear to believe the bisphosphonates will conquer cancer and polish off malaria and schistosomiasis as well as eliminate the specter of "osteoporosis." Despite a trend toward less use (for which I credit the good sense of the patients) Fosamax, in its cheap generic form [alendronate] is still the most prescribed drug for postmenopausal treatment or prevention of osteoporosis. Because of its attractive price, it is still the first choice of the insurance companies who pay for the drugs, and there is no evidence that this is going to change any time soon.

Rosenberg: How did your bisphosphonate skepticism develop? Did you once prescribe them and change your mind?

Hinshaw: My wife, with whom I share a gynecological practice for women of menopause age, and I have not prescribed them since 1998 when it became apparent to us that their action does not make sense metabolically or chemically. They suppress bone remodeling as if bone remodeling were the "bad guy" in osteoporosis and doesn't have the purpose of renewing and strengthening bone. They create a temporary improvement in the balance between bone loss and bone formation which are normally linked--but in a short time bone formation is suppressed, too.

Rosenberg: So the drugs do not even work?

Hinshaw: The carefully controlled clinical trials showed a reduction in fracture risk, usually over 3 years of use, for a subset of the types of patients currently being treated, but the use of these drugs has been extended to many persons with clinical profiles which do not correspond to the trial evidence. The use of these drugs in community medicine is very different than in the monitored trials. One major difference is that the drugs have been used for prolonged periods greatly exceeding the length of the trials. The problems have mostly developed after approximately 6 years. Some studies have been unable to detect any benefit at all like one of thousands of women at Kaiser Permanente treated between 1996 and 2006 and finally published in 2009. Roughly one in 500 bisphosphonate patients sustains an unusual thigh fracture on the drugs which adds up to a large and increasingly number of cases because of their widespread international use. In 81 patients whose cases we studied, fractures occurred not just in the thigh but in the pelvis, feet and ribs as well and many were "announced" by persistent pain. Subsequent or simultaneous fracture of the opposite thigh was also common.

Rosenberg: Clinical trials of bisphosphonates has been impeded by the difficulty in finding women who don't have the drug in their system. How long do the drugs remain?

Hinshaw: Bisphosphonates are nonmetabolizable, resident drugs that never completely leave the body--never. After treatment stops, the burden decreases but there is no point when the resident molecules can be expected to be completely gone. They are not found in circulating serum (except temporarily with an injectable bisphosphonate like Reclast) because they attach s o rapidly to calcium/bone. When they happen to be released from one cache, they can be "recycled" into others. They have such a strong attachment to calcium that patients who swallow calcium supplements when they take bisphosphonates, against directions I may add, may be doing themselves a favor--because bisphosphonates will bind to the calcium instead of their bone.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative pubic health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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I recently researched and wrote a column on osteop... by Josh Mitteldorf on Monday, Sep 2, 2013 at 1:34:38 PM
Female monkeys don't get osteoporosis after menopa... by Laurie Endicott Thomas on Monday, Sep 2, 2013 at 4:09:16 PM
I cant give advice on this particular drug because... by Sam Scully on Monday, Sep 2, 2013 at 7:30:30 PM