We all start losing bone tissue by the time we reach our mid-30s. And as our bones become thinner, they
can lose strength and break easily. Take a minute to discover the fascinating new medical breakthroughs
that are helping to treat and prevent osteoporosis.
By Lisa Bendall for readersdigest.ca
How Do I Know?
Even though the condition is more common as we age, both men and women can be diagnosed with
osteoporosis at any age. “They may have diseases that put them at risk, or they’re on medications that
affect their bones,” says Dr. Angela Cheung, director of the University Health Network’s Osteoporosis
Program in Toronto, and vice-chair of the Scientific Advisory Council of Osteoporosis Canada. “There are
lifestyle risk factors as well, such as not taking enough calcium or vitamin D through diet, or
malabsorption. The list gets long.”
According to Osteoporosis Canada, at least a third of women and one-fifth of men will eventually break a
bone because of osteoporosis. Does that mean a fracture is in your future? Not necessarily. As we learn
more about the way osteoporosis works, we are finding new ways to diagnose and treat the condition
1. Slowing the Destruction
One type of treatment, bisphosphonate, slows down the cells that break down bone tissue (called
osteoclasts). These medications can be taken in pill form, but traditionally have to be swallowed on an
empty stomach. “One of the advancements is making oral bisphosphonates easier to take,” says Dr.
Cheung. “Now there is a compound that you take with food, so you don’t have to wait half an hour or an
hour to eat or drink.” Another new form of bisphosphonate is now available in Canada as a once-a-year
infusion instead of a pill.
2. Build New Bone
A class of treatment more recent than bisphosphonate is called parathyroid hormone or teriparatide. This
medication speeds up the work of cells that form new bone –– osteoblasts –– so that the bone is built up
faster than it can be destroyed. “Right now it’s the only bone formation therapy in Canada,” Dr. Cheung
notes. This medication must be taken as a daily injection.
3. Destroying the Destroyers
Another very new treatment approach is antibody therapy. Instead of blocking the cells that break down
bone tissue, the treatment stops those cells from producing in the first place. “Basically, it works to inhibit
the cells that dig up bone. It reduces the number of osteoclasts forming, and also reduces their survival
and function,” says Dr. Cheung. This treatment, only recently available in Canada, is injected just twice a
4. Acting Like a Hormone
SERMs, or selective estrogen receptor modulators, are designed for women with decreasing levels of
estrogen, a hormone that helps maintain bone mass. “The SERMs bind to estrogen receptors and mimic
estrogen,” says Dr. Cheung. “But it’s not a hormone, so there’s no issue about increasing the risk of
breast cancer.”
5. What's Next?
Currently, clinical trials around the world are using a medication to inhibit cathepsin K, an enzyme that
digests bone. “They’re looking to see if it protects against fractures,” says Dr. Cheung. “We’re all waiting
for the results.” Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York are working with ultrasound to
stimulate the activity of osteoblasts, hoping this can eventually lead to a treatment that regenerates bone.
6. A New Form of Early Detection
Osteoporosis often goes undiagnosed until a bone is broken. An international study has identified genes
associated with bone density and fractures. This could mean a blood test may one day tell you if you’re at
risk for a broken bone. And at Arizona State University and NASA, scientists are working on a technique
of analyzing isotopes – atoms of calcium that have different masses – instead of using X-rays, to detect
bone loss at an earlier stage.
Help Yourself Now
Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, it’s important to do what you can to maintain
bone mass. Research is ongoing in this area; two studies released this summer, for instance, promote the
effects of olive oil and even moderate amounts of alcohol on healthy bone. What we know for sure is that
your diet should include adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D, and your day should include physical
activity, especially weight-bearing exercise. And if you do have a fracture, make sure you talk with your
doctor about ways to prevent another one. “We’re trying to make their first break their last,” Dr. Cheung

6 Important Breakthroughs in Osteoporosis Treatment