Newer cholesterol-lowering drugs combined with more conventional medicine reduces bad cholesterol to incredibly low levels, a new study shows. Perhaps even more important, the combination also reduces the heart-attack-inducing plaque that forms inside the arteries, the study says.
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The study was led by cardiologist Steven Nissen, MD, Chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. Results appeared recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
The study looked at the use of a drug called evolocumab by people who took statins to lower the amount of LDL, or bad, cholesterol in their blood. Evolocumab is a drug called a PCSK9 inhibitor. This is a newer kind of medicine that can make LDL cholesterol levels plummet.
The people who took statins and evolocumab had greater reductions in atherosclerosis compared with people who took statins and a placebo. Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up inside your arteries. The condition can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death.
The results are an intriguing indicator — rather than definite proof — that evolocumab may have benefit for patients taking statins, Dr. Nissen says. Researchers are still awaiting the results of large clinical trials investigating whether evolocumab is safe and will prevent heart attack, stroke or death. The first results of these studies are expected in April 2017.
In the study, researchers treated for 18 months 968 high-risk people who had extremely high levels of blood cholesterol.
Participants were randomly assigned to take either a statin and a placebo, or a statin and evolocumab.
Researchers monitored the participants’ cholesterol levels. They also used a special ultrasound probe to measure the amount of plaque in their arteries at the beginning and the end of the study.
“We were able to show that getting the bad cholesterol levels down to really low levels, down to the 20s and 30s, can actually remove plaque from the coronary arteries,” Dr. Nissen says. “This going to levels that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”
Low cholesterol, less plaque
Results show the group treated with statins and a placebo reduced their LDL cholesterol levels to 93 on average. At the same time, the group treated with the combination of the statin plus evolocumab got down to an average bad cholesterol level of 36.6.
“No one’s ever reached levels that low in a clinical trial,” Dr. Nissen says.
Participants who took evolocumab also had less plaque in their arteries at the end of the study — essentially reversing their heart disease.
“We, for the first time now, have shown that this new class of drugs, the PCSK9 inhibitors, has a favorable effect on the development of plaques on the coronary artery and can actually regress those plaques,” Dr. Nissen says. “And it turns out about two-thirds of patients actually had less plaque at the end of 18 months than they started with.”
PCSK9 inhibitors, which are expensive, are not for everybody, Dr. Nissen says. Currently, the drug is used in addition to statins for the highest-risk patients with particularly high cholesterol.