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Tuesday, 3 April, 2001, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
Beta-blockers slow artery clogging
Pills may help to combat thickened arteries
Scientists have produced the first evidence in humans that beta-blocker drugs slow clogging up of the arteries.

This process, known as atherosclerosis, can lead to potentially fatal cardiovascular problems.

Researchers tested the impact of beta-blockers on the carotid arteries of volunteers, who although healthy had begun to show signs of atherosclerosis.

The carotid arteries, which are found in the neck, supply blood to the brain.

Narrowing of the vessels can lead to blockages which may result in a stroke.

The three-year study found that low doses (25 mg. once daily) of the beta-blocker drug metoprolol CR/XL slowed the rate of progression of atherosclerosis by 40%.

Beta-blockers are generally used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure and to prevent recurrent heart attacks.

Dr Bo Hedblad, of Malmo University Hospital, Sweden, who led the researcher said: "This is the first randomised trial to show that metoprolol CR/XL has an anti-atherosclerotic effect in humans.

"Although studies in animals have shown some beta-blockers have an anti-atherosclerotic effect, until now, there has been no direct evidence of the effect in humans."

The researchers believe that the central nervous system may play an important - but as yet unknown - role in accelerating atherosclerosis.

Central nervous system

Beta-blockers are known to act on the central nervous system, and previous research on animals has indicated that stress is linked to atherosclerosis.

In total, 793 volunteers took part in the study, which lasted for three years.

Ultrasound images of the participants' carotid arteries were taken at enrolment, 18 months, and 36 months.

Metroprolol CR/XL reduced the speed of artery thickening at both 18 and 36 months. People who took the drug also suffered less heart attacks and strokes.

The researchers also tested the impact of the cholesterol-lowering drug fluvastatin which is already known to reduce atherosclerosis.

They found fluvastatin reduced the rate of progression of thickening of the inner lining of carotid arteries by 75%.

The two drugs worked on different sites in the carotid artery, and there was no indication of any interaction between the two drugs in patients who were given them both.

Dr John Wikstrand, who also took part in the research, told BBC News Online that patients might benefit from taking a combination of statins and beta-blockers.

He said: "We can maybe draw a parallel with the combination treatment with an ACE-inhibitor and a beta-blocker in patients with heart failure.

"Adding a beta-blocker on top of an ACE-inhibitor will increase survival by around 35% and reduce the risk of being hospitalized for worsening heart failure by around 30%.

"We speculate that similar benefits could well be at hand when adding a beta-blocker to a statin in patients with high cholesterol levels."

Professor Sir Charles George, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "More research needs to be done as this study looked at only a very small area.

"It will be a considerable time before beta-blockers can be considered as a substitute for existing treatments for atherosclerosis."

The research is published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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