We have all heard it 1,000 times or more. High cholesterol, particularly “bad” LDL cholesterol, increases our risk of heart disease and stroke due to the buildup of fatty deposits in our arteries – a condition known as atherosclerosis.
Today, drugs called statins are the used to treat high cholesterol. Statins and other "lipid regulators," are the most commonly used medications in the U.S. with 210 million prescriptions filled in 2009, according to IMS Health, a firm with offices in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. that tracks drug sales.
Now Swedish researchers working in mice has identified the mechanism behind atherosclerosis and developed a possible vaccine to stop it. T cells, part of the body’s immune system, attack LDL cholesterol, causing inflammation and leading to those dangerous deposits of plaque in our arteries, the researchers report. If the plaque ruptures, blood clots can form and cause a heart attack or stroke.
The researchers have found that T cells don’t react to oxidized LDL, so they are working on a vaccine against the receptor on immune cells that recognizes bad LDL cholesterol. In mice, the researcher say such a vaccine can block the immune reaction and reduce atherosclerosis by up to 70 percent.
“The body’s own control works well as long as the LDL keeps to the blood, liver and lymph glands,” said professor Göran K. Hansson, of the Karolinska Institutet who led the study. “But when it [LDL] accumulates in the artery wall, this inhibition is no longer enough, the T cells are activated and an inflammation arises.”
The study was published Monday, May 3, in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.