How many hits can a drug – or a whole class of drugs – take? Avandia (rosiglitazone) has been the subject of much wrangling about cardiovascular risk in its patient population of Type II diabetics. But there have also been scattered reports of increases in fractures among people taking it or Actos (pioglitazone), the other drug with the same mechanism of action.
Now Ron Evans and his co-workers at Salk, who know about as much PPAR-gamma biology as there is to know, have completed a difficult series of experiments that provides some worrying data about what might be going on. Studying PPAR-gamma’s function in mice is tricky, since you can’t just step in and knock it out (that’s embryonic lethal), and its function varies depending on the tissue where it’s expressed. (That latter effect is seen across many other nuclear receptors, which is just one of the things that make their biology so nightmarishly complex).
So tissue-specific knockouts are the way to go, but the bones are an interesting organ. The body is constantly laying down new bone tissue and reabsorbing the old. Evans and his team managed to knock out the system in osteoclasts (the bone-destroying cells), but not osteoblasts (the bone-forming ones). It’s been known for years that PPAR-gamma has effects on the development of the latter cells, which makes sense, because it also affects adipocytes (fat cells), and those two come from the same lineage. But no one’s been able to get a handle on what it does in osteoclasts, until now.
It turns out that without PPAR-gamma, the bones of the mice turned out larger and much more dense than in wild-type mice. (That’s called osteopetrosis, a word that you don’t hear very much compared to its opposite). Examining the tissue confirmed that there seemed to be normal numbers of osteoblasts, but far fewer osteoclasts to reabsorb the bone that was being produced. Does PPAR stimulation do the opposite? Unfortunately, yes – there had already been concern about possible effects on bone formation because of the known effects on osteoblasts, but it turned out that dosing rosiglitazone in mice actually stimulates their osteoclasts. This double mode of action, which was unexpected, speeds up the destruction of bone and at the same time slow down its formation. Not a good combination.
So there’s a real possibility that long-term PPAR-gamma agonist use might lead to osteoporosis in humans. If this is confirmed by studies of human osteoclast activity, that may be it for the glitazones. They seem to have real benefit in the treatment of diabetes, but not with these consequences. Suspicion of cardiovascular trouble, evidence of osteoporosis – diabetic patients have enough problems already.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I think that PPAR biology is a clear example of something that has turned out to be (thus far) too complex for us to deal with. (Want a taste? Try this on for size, and let me assure that this is a painfully oversimplified diagram). We don’t understand enough of the biology to know what to target, how to target it, and what else might happen when we do. And we've just proven that again. I spent several years working in this field, and I have to say, I feel safer watching it from a distance.