The relationship between the chemistry and biological activity of the bisphosphonates

Bone. 2011 Jul;49(1):20-33. doi: 10.1016/j.bone.2011.03.774. Epub 2011 Apr 9.


The ability of bisphosphonates ((HO)(2)P(O)CR(1)R(2)P(O)(OH)(2)) to inhibit bone resorption has been known since the 1960s, but it is only recently that a detailed molecular understanding of the relationship between chemical structures and biological activity has begun to emerge. The early development of chemistry in this area was largely empirical and based on modifying R(2) groups in a variety of ways. Apart from the general ability of bisphosphonates to chelate Ca(2+) and thus target the calcium phosphate mineral component of bone, attempts to refine clear structure-activity relationships had led to ambiguous or seemingly contradictory results. However, there was increasing evidence for cellular effects, and eventually the earliest bisphosphonate drugs, such as clodronate (R(1)=R(2)=Cl) and etidronate (R(1)=OH, R(2)=CH(3)), were shown to exert intracellular actions via the formation in vivo of drug derivatives of ATP. The observation that pamidronate, a bisphosphonate with R(1)=OH and R(2)=CH(2)CH(2)NH(2), exhibited higher potency than previously known bisphosphonate drugs represented the first step towards the later recognition of the critical importance of having nitrogen in the R(2) side chain. The synthesis and biological evaluation of a large number of nitrogen-containing bisphosphonates took place particularly in the 1980s, but still with an incomplete understanding of their structure-activity relationships. A major advance was the discovery that the anti-resorptive effects of the nitrogen-containing bisphosphonates (including alendronate, risedronate, ibandronate, and zoledronate) on osteoclasts appear to result from their potency as inhibitors of the enzyme farnesyl pyrophosphate synthase (FPPS), a key branch-point enzyme in the mevalonate pathway. FPPS generates isoprenoid lipids utilized in sterol synthesis and for the post-translational modification of small GTP-binding proteins essential for osteoclast function. Effects on other cellular targets, such as osteocytes, may also be important. Over the years many hundreds of bisphosphonates have been synthesized and studied. Interest in expanding the structural scope of the bisphosphonate class has also motivated new approaches to the chemical synthesis of these compounds. Recent chemical innovations include the synthesis of fluorescently labeled bisphosphonates, which has enabled studies of the biodistribution of these drugs. As a class, bisphosphonates share common properties. However, as with other classes of drugs, there are chemical, biochemical, and pharmacological differences among the individual compounds. Differences in mineral binding affinities among bisphosphonates influence their differential distribution within bone, their biological potency, and their duration of action. The overall pharmacological effects of bisphosphonates on bone, therefore, appear to depend upon these two key properties of affinity for bone mineral and inhibitory effects on osteoclasts. The relative contributions of these properties differ among individual bisphosphonates and help determine their clinical behavior and effectiveness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bone and Bones / drug effects
  • Dimethylallyltranstransferase / chemistry
  • Dimethylallyltranstransferase / metabolism
  • Diphosphonates / chemistry*
  • Diphosphonates / metabolism
  • Diphosphonates / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Osteoclasts / drug effects
  • Osteoclasts / enzymology
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Diphosphonates
  • Dimethylallyltranstransferase