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Two Studies Suggest Statins Have a Role in Osteoporosis Prevention

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WebMD Health News

June 22, 2000 -- More than 10 million Americans, mostly postmenopausal women, have the bone-wasting disease called osteoporosis, but soon doctors may have new drugs to both treat and prevent the disease and -- as a bonus -- the treatment will also reduce the risk of heart attack.

This new "miracle drug" is actually a class of drugs called statins that has wowed cardiologists for the last 10 years because the drugs can dramatically reduce the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Now new studies suggest that the drugs can also stimulate bone growth.

One of two studies published in a recent issue of the journal The Lancet suggests that taking one of the statin drugs regularly for at least two years can cut the risk of fractures associated with osteoporosis by as much as 50%.

Although a role for statins in osteoporosis treatment or prevention needs to be confirmed in future studies, leaders of the osteoporosis community are openly enthusiastic about the statin news.

"The possibility that we could have one drug that would reduce the risk of fracture and heart attack is major," Felicia Cosman, MD, clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation tells WebMD. "It's a pretty exciting picture. That's what we thought we were doing with estrogen."

She says, however, that like estrogen, future studies may lead to a different conclusion about the benefits of the medication. Cosman, who is an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, was referring to recent clinical trials that have cast doubt on the ability of estrogen to protect against heart disease or to reduce fracture.

Lead author of one of the studies, K. Arnold Chan, MD, ScD, assistant professor of medicine at the Channing Laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, seconds the cautionary note. He tells WebMD that he and his fellow researchers decided to look at statins after reading a study that found the drugs increased bone density in rats that were given high doses of statins. This increase in bone density strengthens the bone and leads to fewer fractures. He and his colleagues based their new study on medical records of women treated at six HMOs.

In the second Lancet paper, Chris Edwards, MD, MRCP, and colleagues at St. Thomas' Hospital in London measured bone mineral density in 41 women taking statins and compared it to that of 100 women of the same age who weren't taking the cholesterol-lowering drugs. They report that the bone density among the women taking statins was "about 8% higher" than the bone density of the women not on the medication, Edwards says. "I think it's very interesting. ... There is really nothing out there that you can take on a regular basis to increase bone density. This is really something new, and it needs to be confirmed in prospective studies."

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