Researchers have developed what's being hailed as the "holy grail" in the treatment of heart disease, a synthetic "good" cholesterol drug. The drug has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of heart attack.
The heart drug was developed after doctors in a rural section of northern Italy discovered that villagers were healthy despite extremely low levels of "good cholesterol." It turns out they were protected by a variation of the gene that makes the beneficial cholesterol, known as HDL, and that's what scientists replicated in the laboratory.
HDL cholesterol reduces the risk of heart attack by interfering with the accumulation of plaque, a sticky substance that blocks the flow of blood to the heart in coronary arteries. The build-up is commonly referred to as atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries.
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports results of testing on the drug developed by a small biotechnology company that mimics "good" cholesterol.
The study, conducted between November 2001 and March 2003, involved 47 patients at centers across the United States who'd just had a heart attack and were at risk of another one.
Cardiologist Steven Nissen at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio coordinated the investigation in which 36 patients got the active drug. "When I received the data, I was stunned, because what had happened was a pretty significant fraction of the plaque in the coronaries, a little more than four percent, was gone," he said.
According to experts, the reduction is 10 times greater than current treatments for hardening of the arteries, including cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins and a low fat, high fiber diet. And it took only six weeks to work.
Bryan Brewer, with the U.S. National Institute of Health's Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, says the finding goes against a common assumption.
"It was thought [that] because of the long, chronic nature of this disease it would take treatment months to years to have a significant effect in reducing the hardening of the arteries or arteriosclerosis," he said.
The Cleveland Clinic's Steven Nissen is planning a huge trial involving thousands of people, with an eye toward getting the synthetic "good cholesterol" drug to market in two to three years.