Researchers from Chiroscience, a British-based biotechnology company, who announced their findings yesterday, said the discovery would lead to the development of a drug to reverse osteoporosis within three to five years.
The scientists believe that by identifying the gene coding for a protein that appears to regulate bone density they will be able to develop a drug that increases bone density in osteoporosis sufferers.
"We believe that this bone mass gene controls bone mineral density in humans," said Dr John Latham, who led the research. "Based on this finding there is a real opportunity for a novel treatment to be developed that will actually build strong bone ... For those suffering from osteoporosis this is the best news in years."
Osteoporosis is one of the most prevalent diseases in Britain, affecting more than three million people and costing the NHS pounds 940m every year. It occurs most commonly in older people: one in three women and one in 12 men aged over 50 develop the disease, which can also be triggered by early menopause or eating disorders. Sufferers are prone to hip, wrist and bone fractures.
Existing treatments include oestrogen replacement therapy and other hormone- related drugs. Men and women can reduce their chances of getting osteoporosis by eating enough calcium-rich foods, exercising and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol.
The Chiroscience researchers collaborated with academics from the University of Cape Town in South Africa to study families with a history of sclerosteosis, a rare bone growth disorder. One in 160 people in the Afrikaner population in South Africa carries one copy of the gene for sclerosteosis, which causes bones to continue to gain mass throughout an affected individual's life.
This results in a bone density many times greater than normal, making the bones almost impossible to break or fracture. One copy of the disease only slightly increases bone density, but two copies of the gene, which is very rare, is life-threatening as it results in excessive growth of the skull which crushes the brain.
Gene samples collected in South Africa allowed scientists to find the genetic markers for the chromosomes of individuals carrying the gene. "Our next goal is to design a compound that mimics the action of this gene and create a drug that can stimulate growth," said Dr John Padfield, chief executive of Chiroscience Group Ltd.
Nick Donovan, 36, from Chester, developed the disease as a result of over-exercising and bulimia, and his bone density is still decreasing.
He said: "I used to run marathons but have now been banned from doing any sport by my doctor because of the risk of fractures. I am in a lot of pain."Reuse content