Thousands of Americans are taking statins to lower their cholesterol. Cholesterol is a big threat to your heart because it results in plaque buildup in the arteries, which causes them to narrow.
Statins work by blocking a substance your body needs to produce cholesterol. Furthermore, statins may help the body reabsorb cholesterol that has built up along the arterial walls. Your doctor will often put you on a daily statin regimen if you have high cholesterol or other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. If you have more than one risk factor for heart disease, then it’s even more important that you target cholesterol levels.
Statins are a standard treatment for high cholesterol, but new research findings suggest that a cholesterol-lowering vaccine could be a more effective alternative.
So far, the vaccine has shown promise in mice, and now researchers are pushing ahead with human testing.
The vaccine is known as AT04A, and it triggers the production of antibodies that target an enzyme involved in regulating levels of blood cholesterol. The enzyme is known as PCSK9 and it has been shown to hinder the clearance of LDL cholesterol—a.k.a. the “bad” form of cholesterol, which stands in contrast to the “good” cholesterol, HDL—from the bloodstream.
In mice studies, the mice were fed typical high-fat Western diets. After receiving the vaccination, their total blood cholesterol levels dropped 53 percent. Additionally, damage to blood vessels decreased 64 percent and biological markers of blood vessel inflammation fell 28 percent compared to mice that were not vaccinated.
Researcher Dr. Gunther Staffler explained, “AT04A was able to induce antibodies that specifically targeted the enzyme PCSK9 throughout the study period in the circulation of the treated mice. As a consequence, levels of cholesterol were reduced in a consistent and long-lasting way, resulting in a reduction of fatty deposits in the arteries and atherosclerotic damage, as well as reduced arterial wall inflammation.
“If these findings translate successfully into humans, this could mean that, as the induced antibodies persist for months after a vaccination, we could develop a long-lasting therapy that, after the first vaccination, just needs an annual booster. This would result in an effective and more convenient treatment for patients, as well as higher patient compliance.”
The human trial began in 2015 and included 72 healthy adults—it is expected to finish up at the end of this year. Even if the trial is successful, the vaccine cannot be rolled out. Larger trials will be needed to ensure safety.
Tim Chico, a reader in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Sheffield, added, “This was a well-conducted but very early study, using animals not humans, and many questions remain about whether this approach could work in man. The theory is sound and I think this might have the potential to replace the need to take regular cholesterol-lowering drugs.”
There is concern that reducing cholesterol with this vaccine may increase the risk of diabetes, and this is why further testing is required. It may be several more years before a vaccine of this nature is available to the public, but if it is eventually rolled out, it could change the lives of thousands who struggle daily to improve their cholesterol levels.
In the meantime, you should continue to adhere to any treatments your doctor has prescribed and keep up with healthy lifestyle habits including eating well, exercising regularly, not smoking, reducing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight.