Bisphosphonates and other bone agents for breast cancer

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Oct 30;10(10):CD003474. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003474.pub4.


Background: Bone is the most common site of metastatic disease associated with breast cancer (BC). Bisphosphonates inhibit osteoclast-mediated bone resorption, and novel targeted therapies such as denosumab inhibit other key bone metabolism pathways. We have studied these agents in both early breast cancer and advanced breast cancer settings. This is an update of the review originally published in 2002 and subsequently updated in 2005 and 2012.

Objectives: To assess the effects of bisphosphonates and other bone agents in addition to anti-cancer treatment: (i) in women with early breast cancer (EBC); (ii) in women with advanced breast cancer without bone metastases (ABC); and (iii) in women with metastatic breast cancer and bone metastases (BCBM).

Search methods: In this review update, we searched Cochrane Breast Cancer's Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, the World Health Organization's International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP) and on 19 September 2016.

Selection criteria: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing: (a) one treatment with a bisphosphonate/bone-acting agent with the same treatment without a bisphosphonate/bone-acting agent; (b) treatment with one bisphosphonate versus treatment with a different bisphosphonate; (c) treatment with a bisphosphonate versus another bone-acting agent of a different mechanism of action (e.g. denosumab); and (d) immediate treatment with a bisphosphonate/bone-acting agent versus delayed treatment of the same bisphosphonate/bone-acting agent.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently extracted data, and assessed risk of bias and quality of the evidence. The primary outcome measure was bone metastases for EBC and ABC, and a skeletal-related event (SRE) for BCBM. We derived risk ratios (RRs) for dichotomous outcomes and the meta-analyses used random-effects models. Secondary outcomes included overall survival and disease-free survival for EBC; we derived hazard ratios (HRs) for these time-to-event outcomes where possible. We collected toxicity and quality-of-life information. GRADE was used to assess the quality of evidence for the most important outcomes in each treatment setting.

Main results: We included 44 RCTs involving 37,302 women.In women with EBC, bisphosphonates were associated with a reduced risk of bone metastases compared to placebo/no bisphosphonate (RR 0.86, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.75 to 0.99; P = 0.03, 11 studies; 15,005 women; moderate-quality evidence with no significant heterogeneity). Bisphosphonates provided an overall survival benefit with time-to-event data (HR 0.91, 95% CI 0.83 to 0.99; P = 0.04; 9 studies; 13,949 women; high-quality evidence with evidence of heterogeneity). Subgroup analysis by menopausal status showed a survival benefit from bisphosphonates in postmenopausal women (HR 0.77, 95% CI 0.66 to 0.90; P = 0.001; 4 studies; 6048 women; high-quality evidence with no evidence of heterogeneity) but no survival benefit for premenopausal women (HR 1.03, 95% CI 0.86 to 1.22; P = 0.78; 2 studies; 3501 women; high-quality evidence with no heterogeneity). There was evidence of no effect of bisphosphonates on disease-free survival (HR 0.94, 95% 0.87 to 1.02; P = 0.13; 7 studies; 12,578 women; high-quality evidence with significant heterogeneity present) however subgroup analyses showed a disease-free survival benefit from bisphosphonates in postmenopausal women only (HR 0.82, 95% CI 0.74 to 0.91; P < 0.001; 7 studies; 8314 women; high-quality evidence with no heterogeneity). Bisphosphonates did not significantly reduce the incidence of fractures when compared to placebo/no bisphosphonates (RR 0.77, 95% CI 0.54 to 1.08, P = 0.13, 6 studies, 7602 women; moderate-quality evidence due to wide confidence intervals). We await mature overall survival and disease-free survival results for denosumab trials.In women with ABC without clinically evident bone metastases, there was no evidence of an effect of bisphosphonates on bone metastases (RR 0.96, 95% CI 0.65 to 1.43; P = 0.86; 3 studies; 330 women; moderate-quality evidence with no heterogeneity) or overall survival (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.73 to 1.09; P = 0.28; 3 studies; 330 women; high-quality evidence with no heterogeneity) compared to placebo/no bisphosphonates however the confidence intervals were wide. One study reported a trend towards an extended period of time without a SRE with bisphosphonate compared to placebo (low-quality evidence). One study reported quality of life and there was no apparent difference in scores between bisphosphonate and placebo (moderate-quality evidence).In women with BCBM, bisphosphonates reduced the SRE risk by 14% (RR 0.86, 95% CI 0.78 to 0.95; P = 0.003; 9 studies; 2810 women; high-quality evidence with evidence of heterogeneity) compared with placebo/no bisphosphonates. This benefit persisted when administering either intravenous or oral bisphosphonates versus placebo. Bisphosphonates delayed the median time to a SRE with a median ratio of 1.43 (95% CI 1.29 to 1.58; P < 0.00001; 9 studies; 2891 women; high-quality evidence with no heterogeneity) and reduced bone pain (in 6 out of 11 studies; moderate-quality evidence) compared to placebo/no bisphosphonate. Treatment with bisphosphonates did not appear to affect overall survival (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.91 to 1.11; P = 0.85; 7 studies; 1935 women; moderate-quality evidence with significant heterogeneity). Quality-of-life scores were slightly better with bisphosphonates than placebo at comparable time points (in three out of five studies; moderate-quality evidence) however scores decreased during the course of the studies. Denosumab reduced the risk of developing a SRE compared with bisphosphonates by 22% (RR 0.78, 0.72 to 0.85; P < 0.001; 3 studies, 2345 women). One study reported data on overall survival and observed no difference in survival between denosumab and bisphosphonate.Reported toxicities across all settings were generally mild. Osteonecrosis of the jaw was rare, occurring less than 0.5% in the adjuvant setting (high-quality evidence).

Authors' conclusions: For women with EBC, bisphosphonates reduce the risk of bone metastases and provide an overall survival benefit compared to placebo or no bisphosphonates. There is preliminary evidence suggestive that bisphosphonates provide an overall survival and disease-free survival benefit in postmenopausal women only when compared to placebo or no bisphosphonate. This was not a planned subgroup for these early trials, and we await the completion of new large clinical trials assessing benefit for postmenopausal women. For women with BCBM, bisphosphonates reduce the risk of developing SREs, delay the median time to an SRE, and appear to reduce bone pain compared to placebo or no bisphosphonate.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Oral
  • Bone Density Conservation Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Bone Neoplasms / mortality
  • Bone Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Bone Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Clodronic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Denosumab / therapeutic use
  • Diphosphonates / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imidazoles / therapeutic use
  • Injections, Intravenous
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Zoledronic Acid


  • Bone Density Conservation Agents
  • Diphosphonates
  • Imidazoles
  • Clodronic Acid
  • Denosumab
  • Zoledronic Acid