Could a Vaccine Prevent High Cholesterol and Heart Disease?

 fortune.com  6/20/2017 6:10:02 PM   Sy Mukherjee
colorful heart

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. It kills more than 600,000 Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That's one in four U.S. deaths. And it's a strikingly indiscriminate scourge, constituting the top cause of death for whites, African Americans, Hispanics, men, and women (for other major racial groups like Asian and Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, it takes a backseat only to cancer).

Curbing the tide of coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular conditions is no mean feat. These illnesses are largely influenced by a combination of genetics and lifestyle—two things which range from the "impossible" to the "extremely difficult" to change. But what if a vaccine could actually protect against one of the biggest contributors to heart disease, a.k.a high levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol?

That's the medical innovation that European scientists are ready to test in early clinical trials after promising results in a mouse study. "The research... shows that the AT04A vaccine, when injected under the skin in mice that have been fed fatty, Western-style food in order to induce high cholesterol and the development of atherosclerosis, reduced the total amount of cholesterol by 53%, shrank atherosclerotic damage to blood vessels by 64%, and reduced biological markers of blood vessel inflammation by 21-28%, compared to unvaccinated mice," according to the research published in the European Heart Journal.

Those are some striking results. But mice are, well, different from men. So the next essential step is to conduct these experiments (beginning with safety trials) in humans. (It should be noted that the PCSK9 enzyme targeted in this particular study is also in the crosshairs of new drugs from Sanofi/Regeneron and Amgen which had already been approved by the FDA.) And it could take years to determine if a similar approach can actually lower the country's astronomical heart disease rates.

This essay appears in today's edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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