Story in full DOCTORS have been able to reverse the development of heart disease for the first time by giving patients high doses of a powerful cholesterol-lowering drug. The breakthrough has been hailed as an exciting step towards the "holy grail" of tackling clogged arteries.
A study involving almost 350 heart patients, including ten in Scotland, found that the drug Crestor could reduce fatty deposits that build up in the arteries - a process known as atherosclerosis, which can lead to potentially fatal conditions such as heart attack and stroke.
The researchers said the treatment could mean "turning the clock back" on heart disease. But the British Heart Foundation said further research was needed to discover whether the drug could cut heart attack rates.
It is estimated that more than two million people in the UK are affected by narrowed arteries caused by fatty deposits.
The high-intensity therapy with Crestor - a cholesterol- lowering drug called a statin - was given to 349 patients with heart disease around the world.
The two-year study showed that as cholesterol levels in the blood were reduced, the build-up of fatty deposits or plaques in the patients' arteries also showed a slight regression.
Almost four out of five patients demonstrated some form of reduction.
The fatty build-up in the arteries was reduced by between 7 and 9 per cent.
At the same time, levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol were reduced by 53 per cent, while "good" HDL cholesterol was up 15 per cent.
Dr Neal Uren, from Edinburgh Royal Infirmary - the only UK centre to take part in the global trial - said reduction of the fatty deposits, known as atheroma, was the "holy grail" in the fight against heart disease.
"For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to turn the clock back in the arteries of people with heart disease.
"We have seen significant reversal of the fatty deposits that clog up arteries. This has exciting implications for people at risk of heart disease."
Dr Uren said there were no serious side-effects in the patients in the study, but about 12 per cent had to stop taking the drug due to minor effects, such as muscle aches.
The findings were revealed yesterday at the American College of Cardiology's annual conference in Atlanta.
Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said the study was "very encouraging".
He said it was important because it used the highest dose of the most potent statin available.
"Previously, it was thought that statins saved lives by stabilising plaques, thereby preventing them from rupturing to cause a heart attack or stroke.
"This study seems to show statins can also cause some regression of these plaques," he added.
But Prof Weissberg said the study was not designed to test whether this drug regimen actually saved lives.
"So while the results sound promising and are likely to translate into a better outcome for heart patients, we need further studies to confirm whether the regression translates to fewer heart attacks," he said.
Dr Martin Godfrey, of the British Cardiac Society, said it had been suggested previously that statins could reduce fatty deposits in the arteries but that had yet to be shown. He said the latest research might prove to be a "major breakthrough".
He said: "Heart attacks and strokes are the biggest killers in this country. If you could show a way of reducing atherosclerosis, it would be very exciting.
"Doctors and cardiologists will want to see the data to decide for themselves and they will want to see more trials to back it up," Dr Godfrey said.
Crestor, made by AstraZeneca, is currently licensed to treat high cholesterol levels but not atherosclerosis.