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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

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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.


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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.

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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?

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public 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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