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According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration official Diane Wysowski, Merck’s blockbuster osteoporosis drug Fosomax and other drugs in the same family may increase a patient’s risk of esophogal cancer. In a letter published in last Thursday’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, Wysowski urged researchers to explore potential links between Fosomax and other bisphosphonate and cancer.

Wysowski’s letter said that since the initial marketing of Fosomax in 1995 the FDA has received 23 reports of patients that have developed esophageal tumors, including eight deaths related to this lethal form of cancer.

According to Wysowski most of the cases showed a two year lapse between starting the medication and the development of esophageal cancer.

In Europe and Japan, 21 cases involving Fosamax have been logged, with another six instances where Procter & Gamble’s Actonel or risedronate and Didronel or etidronate, and Roche’s Boniva (ibandronate) may have been involved. Six of those people died.

Wysowski also advised that doctors should avoid prescribing bisphosphonates to patients with Barrett’s esophagus, as these patients are already at an elevated risk for developing a tumor.

Bisphosphonates are aimed treating the extremely debilitating bone disease osteoporosis. These drugs work by increasing bone mass in an effort to strengthen weak and brittle bones. Over 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis.

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