Atherosclerosis is a problem we'll have to overcome in our pursuit of longer and healthier lives, but a vaccine has now been developed that may lower LDL cholesterol levels, and reduce fatal plaque formation.
As we get older, cholesterol deposits build in our circulatory system and cause a range of problems including heart attacks and stroke. It's an unfortunate consequence of age for many people, and although diet can have a considerable influence, we need to develop more potent therapy to prevent and remove the deadly plaques that form.
Cholesterol isn't all bad; its an essential part of living and used in a huge range of biological processes you'd die without. Although even 'healthy' people can show some signs of build up over time, increased levels of LDL cholesterol speed up accumulation and 73.5 million citizens in the US currently have high cholesterol. Because of this there has been a concerted effort to find new ways of reducing cholesterol levels, without causing wider harm to the patient.
Statins are far from perfect
Statins do effectively lower cholesterol levels, but they can have some serious side effects including potential diabetes risk and cognitive impairment. They're a harsh way of reducing harmful cholesterol, and scientists have been looking for safer, more effective approaches.
A possible solution
In pursuit of a solution, researchers have developed a vaccine targeting a protein called PCSK9 - which regulates cholesterol levels in the blood by breaking down receptors that flush cholesterol out of the body. Those born without PCSk9 have a decreased risk of heart disease, but those with a harmful mutation suffer from increased risk. The vaccine concept revolved around targeting this protein, so that fewer receptors would be degraded and cholesterol would be removed faster from the body.
"One of the most exiting things about this new vaccine is it seems to be much more effective than statins alone. Statins are still the most commonly prescribed medication for cholesterol. Although they are effective in many people, do have side effects and don't work for everyone. The results of our vaccine were very striking, and suggest it could be a powerful new treatment for high cholesterol"
Other drug companies have already had succes at PSCk9 but their approaches use something called monoclonal antibodies, which are prohibitively expensive and can cost up to $10,000 for a year of treatment. The team here used a non-infectious viral approach, coating a virus-like particle (VLP) with PCSK9 elements to trigger an immune response.
The vaccine has been tested on mice and macaque monkeys already and results look highly promising so far, so it may prove to be a future option for treating harmful cholesterol levels.
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