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Cannabis use linked to risk of osteoporosis May 23, 2005 - guardian.co.uk
Excessive use of cannabis can lead to brittle bones, new research suggests.
Scientists have found that molecules on the surface of bone cells are targeted by cannabis chemicals. They discovered that drugs which block these cannabinoid receptors may prevent bone loss.
But the flip-side to the research is that smoking cannabis is likely to promote osteoporosis.
Professor Stuart Ralston, who led the research at the University of Aberdeen, said: "We hadn't studied cannabis users, but the work we've done would suggest that if you use a lot of cannabis it could stimulate bone-absorbing cells, and that would be bad."
Receptors are molecules that act like a "lock" into which other molecules fit. Molecules that affect cells are activated when they bind to specific receptors.
Prof Ralston's team was investigating the way natural cannabinoids in the body attach to receptors to help regulate bone density and turnover.
These "endogenous" cannabinoids seemed to stimulate the absorption of bone - and it was very likely that chemicals in cannabis did the same.
Because both molecules had a similar structure they were highly likely to bind to the same receptors.
Experiments with mice showed that blocking the cannabinoid receptors effectively inhibited bone loss.
Conversely, stimulating them with drugs that mimicked the effects of cannabis was detrimental to bone.
"This is an important finding since it demonstrates that the receptors which cannabis acts upon are not only important in the nervous system, but also in the control of bone metabolism," said Prof Ralston, who is now at the University of Edinburgh.
"The fact that compounds which blocked cannabinoid receptors are highly effective at preventing bone loss is particularly exciting, since it shows that these drugs could provide us with a completely new approach to the treatment of osteoporosis and other bone diseases."
The findings appear in the online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.
Prof Ralston, one of Britain's leading osteoporosis experts, said he saw many patients with bone loss who used drugs of various types.
But he pointed out that diet, smoking, and other lifestyle issues may also be involved.
"If using cannabis is one of the factors involved, we ought to know about it," he added.
More than 250,000 people in Britain suffer osteoporosis-related fractures each year; related health costs exceed ?1.7bn.
A spokesman for the National Osteoporosis Society said: "It is always interesting to hear about these pieces of research and we will watch with interest to see what happens."