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The first full publications on the biological effects of the diphosphonates, later renamed bisphosphonates, appeared in 1969, so it is timely after 40years to review the history of their development and their impact on clinical medicine. This special issue of BONE contains a series of review articles covering the basic science and clinical aspects of these drugs, written by some of many scientists who have participated in the advances made in this field. The discovery and development of the bisphosphonates (BPs) as a major class of drugs for the treatment of bone diseases has been a fascinating story, and is a paradigm of a successful journey from 'bench to bedside'. Bisphosphonates are chemically stable analogues of inorganic pyrophosphate (PPi), and it was studies on the role of PPi as the body's natural 'water softener' in the control of soft tissue and skeletal mineralisation that led to the need to find inhibitors of calcification that would resist hydrolysis by alkaline phosphatase. The observation that PPi and BPs could not only retard the growth but also the dissolution of hydroxyapatite crystals prompted studies on their ability to inhibit bone resorption. Although PPi was unable to do this, BPs turned out to be remarkably effective inhibitors of bone resorption, both in vitro and in vivo experimental systems, and eventually in humans. As ever more potent BPs were synthesised and studied, it became apparent that physico-chemical effects were insufficient to explain their biological effects, and that cellular actions must be involved. Despite many attempts, it was not until the 1990s that their biochemical actions were elucidated. It is now clear that bisphosphonates inhibit bone resorption by being selectively taken up and adsorbed to mineral surfaces in bone, where they interfere with the action of the bone-resorbing osteoclasts. Bisphosphonates are internalised by osteoclasts and interfere with specific biochemical processes. Bisphosphonates can be classified into at least two groups with different molecular modes of action. The simpler non-nitrogen containing bisphosphonates (such as etidronate and clodronate) can be metabolically incorporated into non-hydrolysable analogues of ATP, which interfere with ATP-dependent intracellular pathways. The more potent, nitrogen-containing bisphosphonates (including pamidronate, alendronate, risedronate, ibandronate and zoledronate) are not metabolised in this way but inhibit key enzymes of the mevalonate/cholesterol biosynthetic pathway. The major enzyme target for bisphosphonates is farnesyl pyrophosphate synthase (FPPS), and the crystal structure elucidated for this enzyme reveals how BPs bind to and inhibit at the active site via their critical N atoms. Inhibition of FPPS prevents the biosynthesis of isoprenoid compounds (notably farnesol and geranylgeraniol) that are required for the post-translational prenylation of small GTP-binding proteins (which are also GTPases) such as rab, rho and rac, which are essential for intracellular signalling events within osteoclasts. The accumulation of the upstream metabolite, isopentenyl pyrophosphate (IPP), as a result of inhibition of FPPS may be responsible for immunomodulatory effects on gamma delta (γδ) T cells, and can also lead to production of another ATP metabolite called ApppI, which has intracellular actions. Effects on other cellular targets, such as osteocytes, may also be important. Over the years many hundreds of BPs have been made, and more than a dozen have been studied in man. As reviewed elsewhere in this issue, bisphosphonates are established as the treatments of choice for various diseases of excessive bone resorption, including Paget's disease of bone, the skeletal complications of malignancy, and osteoporosis. Several of the leading BPs have achieved 'block-buster' status with annual sales in excess of a billion dollars. As a class, BPs share properties in common. However, as with other classes of drugs, there are obvious chemical, biochemical, and pharmacological differences among the various BPs. Each BP has a unique profile in terms of mineral binding and cellular effects that may help to explain potential clinical differences among the BPs. Even though many of the well-established BPs have come or are coming to the end of their patent life, their use as cheaper generic drugs is likely to continue for many years to come. Furthermore in many areas, e.g. in cancer therapy, the way they are used is not yet optimised. New 'designer' BPs continue to be made, and there are several interesting potential applications in other areas of medicine, with unmet medical needs still to be fulfilled. The adventure that began in Davos more than 40 years ago is not yet over.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





2 - 19


Animals, Bone Resorption, Calcification, Physiologic, Diphosphates, Diphosphonates, Humans, Models, Biological, Structure-Activity Relationship