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A drug can stop and even reverse the loss of bone in the spine and prevent fractures in older women with osteoporosis, a common condition in which the bones become brittle, according to a new study.

Danish doctors tested the medicine, called etidronate.Between 15 million and 20 million Americans are estimated to have osteoporosis.

The condition is blamed for 1.3 million fractures annually in people over age 45. It is especially common among older women, who develop osteoporosis after menopause when their bodies make less estrogen.

The research, directed by Dr. Tommy Storm at Sundby Hospital in Copenhagen, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was financed by Procter & Gamble's Norwich Eaton Pharmaceuticals, which makes etidronate.

The doctors performed a three-year comparison study on 66 women, ages 56 to 75. They found that the vertebral bone mineral content of those who got the drug increased 7 percent, while it decreased 3 percent in a comparison group who got dummy pills.

The number of vertebral fractures also decreased substantially in the etidronate group.

The medicine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of Paget's disease, a bone ailment.