Cholesterol drug reverses heart disease, study finds

By MARILYNN MARCHIONE, AP Medical Writer

ATLANTA (AP) - People in a new study got their "bad cholesterol" to the lowest levels ever seen and saw blockages in their blood vessels shrink by taking a high dose of cholesterol drug, researchers reported Monday.

Doctors say it is the best evidence yet that heart disease actually can be reversed, not just kept from getting worse.

Dr. Steven Nissen, a the Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, led the research and reported results at the American College of Cardiology meeting.

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 a consumer group that contends it has more side effects than its competitors.

It's too soon to tell whether this shrinkage of artery blockages will result in 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 to do that, Nissen said.

The study was paid for by AstraZeneca PLC, the maker of Crestor, a drug that a consumer group has been lobbying to have pulled from the market. Some reports have linked Crestor to higher rates of serious muscle problems and kidney damage, especially among Asians.

The Food and Drug Administration last year refused to order the drug off the market but required a warning of the side effects on its label.

In the study, Crestor got people's LDL or "bad cholesterol" levels to around 60 milligrams per deciliter of blood, down from roughly 130 at the start of the experiment. HDL or "good cholesterol" levels rose modestly, from 43 to 49.

"The body needs about 40 LDL, so we're getting pretty close to what the body needs for general repair," said Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a Duke University cardiologist who had no role in the study.

Study results were released Monday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which will publish it in its April 5 edition.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)