I'd like to start an occasional series of blog posts on The Heart Scan Blog in which I review studies relevant to the whole heart scan score reversal experience.
In a previous post, Don't be satisfied with "deceleration,"I discussed the BELLES Trial (Beyond Endorsed Lipid Lowering with EBT Scanning (BELLES)), in which either atorvastatin (Lipitor), 80 mg, or pravastatin (Pravachol),40 mg, was given to 615 women. Both groups showed an average of 15% annual plaque growth, regardless of which agent was taken and regardless of the amount of LDL cholesterol reduction.
I cited another study in which 471 participants received either Lipitor, 80 mg, or Lipitor, 10 mg. The rate of annual score increase was 25-27%, regardless of drug dose or LDL lowering.
Here's yet another study, a small German experience in 66 patients, with a curious design and using the now-defunct statin drug, cerivastatin (Bayccol, pulled in 2001, nearly simultaneous with the publication of this study, due to greater risk of muscle damage, particularly when used in combination with gemfibrozil). Achenbach et al in Influence of lipid-lowering therapy on the progression of coronary artery calcification: A prospective evaluation reported on this trial in which all participants underwent heart scanning to obtain a heart scan score; no treatment was initiated based on the score. A second scan was obtained after the no treatment period, followed by treatment with cerivastatin, 0.3 mg per day. A third scan was finally obtained.
In year one without treatment, the average increase in heart scan scores was 25% . In year two with cerivastatin, the average increase in heart scan score was 8.8% . In 32 participants who achieved LDL<100 mg/dl on the drug, there was an average modest reduction in heart scan scores of 3.7% (i.e., -3.7%).
Now, that was eye-opening. Why did this small study achieve such startlingly different results from the other two studies that showed relentless progression despite even high doses of Lipitor? That remains unanswered. Was cerivastatin unique among statins? Did the unique two-phase trial design somehow change the outcome by triggering participants to change lifestyle habits after their first scan (since most exhibited an increase in score; they were not "blinded" to their scores). Those questions will remain unanswered, since the drug has been made unavailable. This smal l study had actually been intended to be larger, but was prematurely terminated because of cerivastatin's withdrawal.
This experience is unique, as you can see, compared to the two other studies. But it was also smaller. The results are also different than what I have seen in day-to-day practice when I've seen people treated with statin drugs alone (not cerivastatin, of course): rarely do heart scan scores stop increasing. While slowing does usually occur (18-24% per year rates of annual score increase are very common in people who do nothing but take a statin drug and make modest lifestyle changes), I have personally seen only two people stop their score with this strategy alone. Nobody has ever dropped their score taking a statin alone, in my experience.
You can also see the nature of clinical studies: single or limited interventions instituted in order to control for unexpected or complex effects. If three different treatments are used, then what desirable or undesirable effects, or lack of an effect, is due to which treatment agent?
My experience is that no single treatment stops or reduces heart scan scores . It requires a more rational effort that includes 1) identification of all causes of coronary plaque (e.g., low HDL, high triglycerides, Lp(a), small LDL, deficiency of vitamin D, etc, none of which are substantially affected by statin drugs), and 2) correction of all causes. That simple concept has served us well.