The chemistry of bisphosphonates: from antiscaling agents to clinical therapeutics

Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2012 Feb;12(2):95-101. doi: 10.2174/187152012799014959.


In the early 1960s, inorganic pyrophosphate (PPi) was found to be present in body fluids and to act as a natural inhibitor of calcification by its interaction with hydroxyapatite. In addition to inhibiting the formation of calcium phosphate, PPi also inhibited dissolution of hydroxyapatite crystals, which made it interesting for pharmacologic applications in the treatment of diseases associated with excessive bone resorption. However, PPi is metabolically unstable because of rapid hydrolysis of the P-O-P backbone by hydrolytic enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract. In the search for more stable analogues of PPi, attention turned to the chemical class of bisphosphonates (BPs). The first BPs were synthesized in the 19th century and widely used for industrial applications. Bisphosphonates are formally derived from PPi by replacement of the bridging oxygen atom by a carbon atom, resulting in a P-C-P moiety that is resistant to hydrolysis. In addition to its decisive role in stability, the central carbon atom also provides an attachment point for 2 additional substituents (R¹ and R²). While R¹ is preferentially a hydroxy group, allowing such derivatives to act as powerful tridentate ligands for calcium (bone hook), R² is mainly responsible for antiresorptive potency. The clinically available BPs can be divided into 2 subclasses based on their structure and molecular mechanism of action. The simple, non-nitrogen-containing derivatives can be incorporated into non-hydrolyzable cytotoxic ATP analogues. The more potent nitrogen-containing BPs inhibit FPPS, a key enzyme in the mevalonate pathway. Details of this crucial molecular interaction have recently been elucidated. Members of this class have a wide therapeutic window between therapeutic inhibition of bone resorption and undesired inhibition of bone formation, and several have found widespread use for the treatment of benign and malignant bone disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bone Density Conservation Agents / chemistry*
  • Bone Density Conservation Agents / pharmacology
  • Bone Density Conservation Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bone Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Bone Resorption / drug therapy*
  • Bone and Bones / drug effects
  • Diphosphonates / chemistry*
  • Diphosphonates / pharmacology
  • Diphosphonates / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Models, Molecular


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Bone Density Conservation Agents
  • Diphosphonates