The Nation's Health + health

Statin buster?

Merck recently reported preliminary results with its drug-in-development, anacetrapib.

After six months of treatment, participants showed:

LDL cholesterol was reduced from 81 mg/dl to 45 mg/dl in those taking anacetrapib, and from 82 mg/dl to 77 mg/dl in the placebo group.

HDL increased from 41 mg/dl to 101 mg/dl in the drug group, from 40 mg/dl to 46 mg/dl in those on placebo.

As you'd expect, the usual line-up of my colleagues gushed over the prospects of the drug, salivating over new speaking opportunities, handsomely-paid clinical "research" trials, and plenty of nice trips to exotic locales.

Anacetrapib is a cholesteryl-ester transfer protein inhibitor, or CETP inhibitor, much like its scrapped predecessor, torcetrapib . . . you know, the one that went down in flames in 2006 after 60% excess mortality occurred in people taking the drug compared to placebo. The hopes of many investors and Pfizer executives were dashed with torcetrapib's demise. The data on torcetrapib's lipid effects were as impressive as Merck's anacetrapib.

These drugs block the effects of the CETP enzyme, an enzyme with complex effects. Among CETP's effects: mediating the "heteroexchange" of triglycerides from triglyceride-rich VLDL particles that first emerge from the liver for cholesterol from LDL particles. This CETP-mediated process enriches LDL particles with triglycerides, which then make LDL a target for action by another enzyme, hepatic lipase, that removes triglycerides. This yields a several nanometer smaller LDL particle, now the number one most common cause of heart disease in the U.S., thanks to conventional advice to cut fat intake and increase consumption of "healthy whole grains."

With effects like this, anacetrapib, should it hold up under the scrutiny of FDA-required trials and not show the same mortality-increasing effects of torcetrapib, will be a huge blockbuster for Merck if release goes as scheduled in 2015. It will likely match or exceed sales of any statin drug. Statin drugs have achieved $27 billion annual sales, some of it deserved. Anacetrapib will likely handily match or exceed Lipitor's $12 billion annual revenue.

More than increasing HDL, CETP inhibition is really a strategy to reduce small LDL particles.

As with many drugs, there are natural means to achieve similar effects with none of the side-effects. In this case, similar effects to CETP inhibition, though with no risk of heightened mortality, is . . . elimination of wheat, in addition to an overall limitation of carbohydrate consumption. Not just low-carb, mind you, but wheat elimination on the background of low-carb. For instance, eliminate wheat products and limit daily carbohydrate intake to 50-100 grams per day, depending on your individual carbohydrate sensitivity, and small LDL drops 50-75%. HDL, too, will increase over time, not as vigorously as with a CETP inhibitor, but a healthy 20-30% increase, more with restoration of vitamin D.

Eliminating wheat and adjusting diet to ratchet down carbs is, of course, cheap, non-prescription, and can be self-administerd, criteria that leave the medical world indifferent. But it's a form of "CETP inhibition" that you can employ today with none of the worries of a new drug, especially one that might share effects with an agent with a dangerous track record.

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