One IV treatment a year may prevent osteoporosis. The research involves a drug called zoledronic acid, which is approved for use in cancer patients to treat a condition in which calcium seeps from the bones. The drug was found to slow the rate of bone less and increase bone density, and the effect persisted for at least a year after treatment, long after the medication had disappeared from the blood.
It will be about five years before doctors know whether the drug really does prevent fractures, because the study was only a one-year look at the medicine's effect on bone itself. The manufacturer, which paid for the research, has already begun the much larger and longer studies. But doctors who treat osteoporosis are excited by the preliminary results.
However, the pills must be taken sitting or standing straight up, before eating, and the patient has to stay upright for 30 minutes without eating or drinking. Side effects include abdominal pain, nausea, heartburn and irritation of the esophagus. And research has shown that such patients often skip their pills or do not take them according to instructions. The IV treatment has fewer side effects.
The drug, sold by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. as Zometa, is in a class called bisphosphonates. Two other drugs in this class are used as once-a-day pills to treat osteoporosis; one also is available as a once-a-week pill. Novartis said it does not know how much the drug is likely to cost. If a version of Zometa is approved for use against osteoporosis, it will probably be given another name.