ATLANTA – High doses of a powerful cholesterol-lowering drug seemed to actually reverse heart disease – not just keep it from getting worse – new research showed.
People in the study got their “bad cholesterol” to the lowest levels ever achieved and saw blockages in their blood vessels shrink as a result. It’s too soon to tell whether the shrinkage of artery deposits will mean fewer heart attacks, but doctors were excited by the possibility.
“The holy grail has always been to try to reverse the disease,” and this shows a way, said Dr. Steven Nissen, the Cleveland Clinic cardiologist who led the nationwide experiment and reported results at a meeting of heart doctors Monday.
“This is a paper to take seriously. It’s another chapter in the story, a proof of principle,” said Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Two-thirds of the 349 study participants had regression of heart artery buildups when they took the maximum dose of Crestor, the strongest of the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs on the market and one under fire by the consumer group Public Citizen, which contends it has more side effects than its competitors.
The group said Monday that the study “does not alter our assessment that Crestor has unique risks without evidence of unique benefits” and should not be prescribed, especially at the doses used in this study unless lower doses and other drugs failed to help.
The study was paid for by AstraZeneca PLC, the maker of Crestor. Some reports have linked it to higher rates of serious muscle problems and kidney damage, especially among Asians, and the Food and Drug Administration last year required a warning on its label.
No big safety issues emerged in the new study, but doctors said it was too small to detect rare side effects and was not designed for that purpose.
The aim was to see whether people who already had heart disease, not just high cholesterol, could turn back the clock.
Clots in arteries are the main cause of heart attacks. Big ones are treated with angioplasty to flatten them or surgery to bypass them, but doctors have long sought a less drastic solution that also treats small buildups that can slowly worsen until they squeeze a vessel shut.
Statins such as Lipitor, Zocor and Pravachol have become the world’s top-selling drugs by dramatically lowering LDL, or “bad cholesterol,” a culprit in clot formation.
In the study, Crestor not only dropped average LDL levels from 130 milligrams per deciliter of blood at the start to around 60, but also raised HDL or “good cholesterol” from 43 to 49.
Doctors think this dual effect may be what caused blockages to shrink, as documented by ultrasound measurements before and two years after treatment.
The volume of each patient’s main blockage decreased a modest 1 percent. The amount of buildup in the most clogged artery decreased 9 percent, and in the entire length of the vessel, 7 percent, on average.