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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 15:11 GMT
Heart disease drug 'breakthrough'
Before and after pictures show regresson of coronary artery atheroma
Scans show the reduction of coronary artery thickening
Medical researchers at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary believe they have found a drug that could reverse the causes of some forms of heart disease.

The cardiologists think the build-up of fat in the arteries could be reduced by the treatment.

A global survey involving 349 patients has shown that taking a single rosuvastatin tablet daily over two years can reduce fatty build-ups.

Cardiologist Dr Neal Uren described the reduction as the "Holy Grail".

More than two million people in Britain are thought to suffer from hardening of the arteries, a condition which leads to heart attacks and strokes.

However, while the research has shown a reduction in the fatty deposits, it is not clear if this translates into a reduction in the number of deaths from heart attacks.

It is an exciting finding but it has to be used in the context of other lifestyle modifications
Dr Neil Uren

Dr Uren told the BBC: "It's an exciting discovery. There is good evidence to show that in the arteries that go up to the brain where you can have strokes, if you give high degrees of statins you can reduce the thickening of the blood vessel."

He said the latest study built on a trial with other statins two years ago which showed that although the drugs did not regress or thin down plaque in coronary arteries, they froze the place compared to a weaker statin.

"This trial has essentially confirmed that you can modify the size of the plaque so you would assume you can also reduce the plaque's vulnerability to rupture," he went on.

Healthy diet

Dr Uren said further benefits would be likely to be seen over a longer period.

The findings were very important for Scotland, which had a high rate of heart disease, but it was important that people also had a healthy diet and avoided cigarette smoke.

"It is an exciting finding but it has to be used in the context of other lifestyle modifications," Dr Uren added.

Cigarette stub
Changes to lifestyles are important to overall health, doctors say

Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said the study was "important".

But he said it had yet to be demonstrated that breaking down the fatty deposits would actually mean fewer heart attacks.

The study focused on patients with cardiovascular disease at centres in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia.

They were given intensive treatment with rosuvastatin, known commercially as Crestor, which, along with other statins, was known to cut cholesterol levels.

Patients received at least one 40mg pill of the drug a day - most statins come in doses of no bigger than 20mg.

Tests found that the drug cut levels of potentially damaging LDL-cholesterol by about 50% and boosted levels of the beneficial HDL form by about 15%.

Further studies

As harmful cholesterol was reduced, build-ups of fatty deposits in the patients' arteries also showed signs of a reduction. After two years of treatment in the Asteriod programme sponsored by Astra Zeneca their thickness was reduced by 6.8%.

The research found almost four out of five patients (78%) demonstrated some reduction in the level of atherosclerosis.

The reductions were found to be greatest in the arteries with the most severe disease.

Patients took a larger than normal dose of the drug

Angus Peters, one of the patients who trialled the drug, said it had cured his condition.

He said: "I had two arteries which were blocked, although my heart was fine, and that was giving me angina.

"Bypass sugery was said to be the last option, but so far that hasn't been needed. By taking this drug, I'm fine."

Mr Peters, from St Andrews, added: "The blockages have more or less cleared and I am leading a normal life now."

Professor Weissberg said: "Previously it was thought that statins saved lives by stabilising plaques - the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries - thereby preventing them from rupturing to cause a heart attack or stroke.

"This study encouragingly seems to demonstrate a small but definite regression of atherosclerotic plaques.

"However, this study wasn't designed to test whether this treatment actually saves lives, so whilst the results sound promising and are likely to translate into a better outcome for heart patients, we still need further studies to confirm whether the regression demonstrated translates to fewer heart attacks."

Rosuvastatin has previously been linked to a small number of cases of a muscle wasting disease.

However, the drug was given a clean bill of health by the US Food and Drug Administration last year.

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