Being diagnosed with high cholesterol can mean a big adjustment for a person’s life. Having to continually watch what you eat, be concerned about heart health, and to always take your medicine can be disheartening and quite annoying.
Scientists from the Houston Methodist Research Institute have made a breakthrough discovery that could be the key to developing new drugs to lower cholesterol through a new pathway for cholesterol-elimination.
What is more astonishing is that this was an accidental discovery made when studying the current model of cholesterol transport through the body.
Challenging what we thought we knew
“The model people have been using for 40 years presumed that cholesterol was transported from the arteries with other lipids and proteins and entered a particle that stayed in the blood for several days before being cleared by the liver for disposal. What we discovered in the process was something different. We discovered the cholesterol skips all these steps and goes directly from this early particle to the liver in two minutes. This is a thousand times faster than what was formerly suspected,” said biochemist, Henry Pownall, Ph.D.
A major risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease leading to heart attacks and stroke is an elevation of LDL cholesterol found in the bloodstream. Statins have been more or less the mainstay of treatment of high cholesterol (combined with proper diet and exercise).
Statins are a class of lipid-lowering medication that reduces cardiovascular disease in those at risk. While proven to help save lives, unfortunately, it comes with a whole bunch of side effects such as muscle aches, weakness, and flushing of the skin (just to name a few).
The researchers state that the current method for treating “bad” cholesterol is not wrong, but that “good” cholesterol, also known as HDL, needs to be better understood as it helps to protect the heart.
The importance of HDL cholesterol
Part of this discovery came from looking at HDL cholesterol in its nascent or early form produced by cells. This type of HDL goes directly to the liver, mostly skipping conversion to the mature form of HDL.
“LDL cholesterol, the so-called ‘bad cholesterol’ is well controlled with the current statin therapies. The track record for these cholesterol-lowering drugs is indisputable, and they will continue to work. HDL, or the ‘good cholesterol,’ however, is a much trickier system. Not everything that raises it protects the heart and not everything that lowers it is bad for you. We will need to redesign new drugs to lower plasma cholesterol in a way that takes into account this new mechanism. We will look for interventions – maybe dietary, maybe pharmacological – that raise HDL cholesterol in a way that helps protect the arteries and prevent cardiovascular disease,” Pownall said.
This new notion of the metabolic process of cholesterol in the body challenges the way the medical community addressed the concept for decades. Dr. Pownall and his team of researchers already provided evidence that the current way of thinking is not entirely correct, with their discovery possibly changing this aspect of medicine forever.