16 December 1997

University of Queensland researchers are taking the first steps towards developing a drug which prevents osteoporosis but has minimal side effects.

A team of experts from the Biochemistry Department and the Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology are collaborating with the Centre for Drug Design and Development on the project.

Group spokesperson Professor David Hume said an $80,000 grant from Johnson & Johnson Research Pty Ltd (JJR) had given the research a major boost.

JJR is an independent, incorporated Australian company which primarily undertakes in-house research but also interacts with external groups in Australia and with J&J
divisions worldwide.

Professor Hume said the money would fund the full-time appointment, for one year in the first instance, of Dr Luke Guddat.

The project targets a key enzyme in the process of the release of calcium from the bone. 'We want to find out the exact structure of that enzyme so we can design drugs that are very specific,' Professor Hume said.

'We've already proved the concept. Now we have the funding to take things a stage further to the point of commercial evaluation.'

He said today's main drug approaches to osteoporosis, including hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and bisphosphonates, did not work for all patients and had unpleasant side effects which were unacceptable to many. HRT for women also carried with it certain health risks such as an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancer and blood clots.

Professor Hume describes osteoporosis as a reduction in the mass and strength of the bones. It can affect anyone as they grow older but is particularly prevalent among women.

'Older women can lose a significant proportion of their total bone mass with most of this happening within five to 10 years of menopause,' he said.

The condition makes bones more brittle and liable to break after only minimal trauma and can result in major fractures when elderly people fall. When it affects the spine it can lead to the gradual collapse of vertebra leading to development of stooping and loss of height.

'Osteoporosis is a multi-billion dollar a year clinical problem, especially for women. It's something which can lead to major injuries and even death,' Professor Hume said.

Other likely sufferers are those on steroid therapy for any number of inflammatory conditions. Professor Hume said a side effect of such steroids was to upset the balance between the processes of bone formation and breakdown. He said smoking, alcohol and poor diet were other risk factors for osteoporosis.

Professor Hume said the best defence against osteoporosis was load-bearing exercise when people were young. Walking, running and lifting weights all helped develop stronger, bigger bones.

For more information, contact Professor David Hume (telephone 3365 4493).