Our best pharmacologic agents for osteoporosis treatment prevent no more than 40-60% of osteoporotic fractures in patients at highest risk. Thus, there is a need for agents that can further augment bone mass and reduce fracture risk more substantially. To this end, we investigated the utility of parathyroid hormone (PTH) in combination with established hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) in women with osteoporosis. Fifty-two women who had been on HRT for at least 2 years were enrolled in this trial in which 25 were assigned randomly to remain on HRT alone and 27 were assigned to remain on HRT and also receive daily subcutaneous PTH(1-34) 400 U (25 microg) per day for 3 years. Bone mineral density (BMD) measurements at the spine, hip, and total body as well as biochemical determinations of bone turnover and calcium homeostasis were obtained every 6 months. Lateral thoracic and lumbar spine X-rays were obtained at baseline and annually. Subjects also had measurements of bone density and biochemical indices of bone turnover 1 year after discontinuation of PTH, while HRT was continued. In the group receiving HRT alone, bone density and biochemical variables of bone turnover remained stable throughout the 3-year treatment trial and 1-year follow-up. In the PTH + HRT group, biochemical variables of bone formation and resorption peaked at 6 months and subsequently remained elevated until 30 months at which time levels were indistinguishable from baseline. Subjects in the PTH + HRT group increased bone mass by 13.4+/-1.4% in the spine, 4.4+/-1.0% in the total hip, and 3.7+/-1.4% in the total body. Bone density measurements remained stable 1 year after discontinuation of PTH without any significant loss while women continued HRT. Biochemical variables did not change significantly after cessation of PTH through the 1-year follow-up period. PTH + HRT reduced the percent of women who had vertebral fractures from 37.5% to 8.3% (using a 15% height reduction criterion) and from 25% to 0% (using a 20% height reduction criterion) compared with women receiving HRT alone (p < 0.02 for both). We conclude that ongoing HRT maintains almost all of the PTH-induced bone mass increment for 1 year after discontinuation of PTH. Furthermore, PTH in combination with hormone therapy is an effective means of increasing bone mass throughout the skeleton and specifically reducing vertebral fracture occurrence by 75-100%, compared with HRT alone.