Osteoporosis treatment builds new bones

By Patrick Boyle

A University of Calgary researcher is studying a drug that may do for osteoporosis what insulin did for diabetes.

The bones of osteoporosis sufferers become brittle and tend to break very easily. Dr. David Hanley, an oncologist in the Faculty of Medicine, is preparing to research the use of Parathyroid Hormone (PTH) in the treatment of osteoporosis as part of a North American study taking place at 120 different institutions.

Practical medicine currently offers many therapeutic procedures for curbing the effects of the disease, so what makes this one unique?

"The Parathyroid Hormone is a promising new potential treatment for osteoporosis," said Dr. Hanley. "Many existing therapies act to prevent bone loss–this hormone stimulates new bone growth. That means people see significant increases in their bone density with-
in one to two years of treatment."

One might expect some sort of major scientific discovery to precede such new and innovative research, but the restorative powers of PTH were actually suspected in the 1920s when University of Alberta researcher Dr. James Collip first isolated the hormone. The biochemist had, only a few years before the discovery, shared the 1923 Nobel Prize for Medicine with Sir Frederick Banting and his research team for their isolation of insulin. Recent developments in techniques of microscopic observation and cell culturing prompted the scientific community to take a second look at Collip’s findings.

In humans, PTH is produced by the parathyroid glands, located in the neck. Its primary role is to maintain the optimum level of calcium in the various structures of the body. Osteoporosis arises in a person’s twilight years, when the destruction rate of bone matter begins to overtake the production rate. One severe consequence of this deterioration is that porous bone begins to dissolve from the inside out. Recent experiments suggest PTH therapy may be able to foster the rebuilding of this lost bone tissue.

According to study coordinator Sharon Gaudet, participants do not have to contend with a particularly taxing routine.

"We teach participants to administer a daily injection with a tiny, pen-shaped needle," she said. "Patients come to the Medical School every three months for study visits during which bone density tests,
X-rays and ECGs are taken."

At the 120 places where the study will take place, 1,800 people will participate over an 18 month period. In order to qualify as a participant, an individual must be a female over the age of 45 with established osteoporosis. Involvement in the study is also restricted to patients who have not sought extended treatment for their disorder.

Dr. Hanley believes that, like other world-class research projects taking place at the U of C, this study will have an impact on students.

"[In addition to] reflecting well on the Medical School and drawing payments that may be able to aid graduate research, the study affects the lives of all students," he said. "We all think of osteoporosis as a disease of the aged, but I treat a number of young people [from] the university who suffer from the disease. Regardless, it is an illness that will affect a quarter of all women and an eighth of all men at some point in their lives."