Seemingly safer steroid mimics

Doctors rely heavily on the inflammation-reducing steroids called glucocorticoids to treat asthma and arthritis. Chronic treatment with high doses of these drugs, however, can lead to diabetes, bone loss, and growth retardation.

So, researchers at Ligand Pharmaceuticals in San Diego and Abbot Laboratories in Abbot Park, Ill., set out to develop designer glucocorticoids that would mimic the beneficial but not the detrimental effects of the steroids (SN: 10/16/99, p. 252). Tests in cultured human cells and in rats indicate that a new compound called AL-438 meets this goal, they now report.

In arthritic rats, for instance, AL-438 reduces joint swelling and damage as well as a standard glucocorticoid does, says Jeffrey N. Miner of Ligand. Unlike a steroid, however, AL-438 doesn’t lead to abnormally high concentrations of sugar in the blood, which indicate an increased risk of diabetes. Miner and his colleagues are still collecting data on the drug’s effect on bone loss.

This drug may be just the first of a series of new compounds that can act like glucocorticoids but have fewer side effects, says Miner. Trials in people, though, are still several years away, he adds.

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