The pyridinium derivatives hydroxylysylpyridinoline (HP) and lysylpyridinoline (LP) are intermolecular crosslinking compounds of collagen which are only present in its mature form. Contrasting to the wide distribution of type I and II collagens, HP and LP are absent from skin, ligament and fascia, and their major sources are bone and cartilage. Using a specific HPLC assay, we have determined the 24-h excretion of HP and LP crosslinks in normal adults of both sexes, in patients with primary hyperparathyroidism and in patients with Paget's disease of bone before and after intravenous treatment with amino-propylidene bisphosphonate (APB). Mean adult normal values were 33 +/- 13 pmol/mumol creatinine for HP and 6.3 +/- 3.4 pmol/mumol creatinine for LP. In women, menopause induced a 2-3-fold increase of HP and LP reflecting the well documented postmenopausal increase of bone turnover. In the urine of patients with primary hyperparathyroidism and of patients with active Paget's disease of bone, urinary crosslinks were significantly higher than in age-matched controls, with a mean 3- and 12-fold increase, respectively. Urinary excretion of hydroxyproline is a well recognized but poorly sensitive marker of bone turnover, reflecting resorption. In the same patients, the effect of menopause and disease state on hydroxyproline excretion was much less dramatic than on HP and LP. During intravenous APB treatment of pagetic patients, there was an early decrease of HP and LP, which was significant after 24 h and reached 62% at 4 days, contrasting with a late and milder decrease of urinary hydroxyproline. Because APB is a potent inhibitor of resorption which does not have a direct short-term effect on bone formation, these data also indicate that urinary excretion of HP and LP reflect only collagen degradation occurring during osteoclastic resorption and not the degradation of newly synthesized collagen. We conclude that urinary HP and LP excretion represents the first sensitive and specific marker of bone resorption. Its use should be valuable in the clinical investigation of metabolic bone diseases, especially osteoporosis.