Tech + Health

04.25.14

Scientists at Johns Hopkins Come Closer to Eliminating Heart Disease

A world without heart disease seems impossible. But researchers at Johns Hopkins just got one step closer.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University may be one step closer to eradicating debilitating heart diseases in humans, particularly those caused by excessive buildup of cholesterol.

A new study published in the journal Circulation shows that a synthesized drug reduces, and may even eradicate, the effects of high-fat and high-cholesterol diets. And though the drug is prosperous for the heart and brain most specifically, the entire body may benefit from this development.  

“It’s the entire cardiovascular system that’s affected,” Ekaterina Pesheva, a representative for Johns Hopkins, told The Daily Beast.The reason we’re worried about the heart and the brain is because those are the centers that end up being the most debilitating to human life when affected by fatty buildups.”

The study shows that the new drug under examination, known now as D-PDMP, changes the way fat metabolism works, and eliminates the risk of heart attack and heart disease. The drug halts the development of atherosclerosis, a word referring to the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is based on a buildup of fat and cholesterol in blood vessels, and happens to be the main cause of heart attacks in humans. Most notably, atherosclerosis is the No. 1 cause of death in humans (perhaps a little-known fact in a world rampant with famine, war, and crime).

Atherosclerotic heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, which develops when fat builds inside the blood vessels over time, rendering them stiff, narrowed, and hardened. This, in turn, reduces blood flow to the heart and brain.

Other kinds of heart disease include structural heart disease—people born with malformations of their heart, which is rare, and heart failure (mostly a result of poorly functioning heart muscle, which can be due to a number of causes, including atherosclerosis. It can also be caused by other conditions such as viral infections of the heart) will also benefit from this development.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these new developments is that the compound used to control the atherosclerosis is a widely available, man-made compound.

Dr. Subroto Chatterjee, Ph.D, a cardio-metabolic expert at Johns Hopkins Medicine, spearheaded the research and development of this project. “Atherosclerotic, in most colloquial terms, means clogged vessels, or vessels thickened by buildup of fat inside the vessel,” Chatterjee told The Daily Beast. “And this research was quite challenging,” he said, “but we feel like we got quite lucky with the development here.”

Chatterjee and his team found that D-PDMP almost totally eliminated the buildup of cholesterol in vital regions of the body. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these new developments is that the compound used to control the atherosclerosis is a widely available, man-made compound.

The researchers tested the drug in mice and rabbits, Chatterjee told The Daily Beast. The mice were known to already have heart problems and the rabbits were known to have healthy hearts. That complicates the study, if only because the control group of the species isn’t specific to one cardiovascular system. Researchers fed both species a high-fat and high-cholesterol diet.

“Indeed, this diet nearly guarantees arteriosclerosis in these transgenic/mutant mice as they fail to handle LDL [low-density liver] cholesterol,” Chatterjee said. “In these animals on this diet, the risk of this disease is nearly 100%. There is one chance in four that your child may have blood cholesterol that is too high. Healthy individuals have a one in two chance of abnormally elevated blood cholesterol,” he said. “More than 70 million Americans have high cholesterol, according to the CDC.”

Cholesterol control is a contentious field in medical research, because the side effects of drugs used to treat the issue can be dangerous. The Daily Beast spoke with John McEvoy, a cardiology fellow in preventive cardiology physician, at Johns Hopkins, who was not involved with this particular study.

“It’s always very important when a new mechanism for treating high cholesterol and heart disease comes about,” McEvoy said. “This pathway and new treatment are very exciting in that regard. However, the next step for these researchers will be making sure there are no side effects of the drug that are harmful to humans.”

Chatterjee said that the actual development of the drug is about five years away. He put its science in simple terms 

“Imagine you have clogged up plumbing due to debris,” Chatterjee said. “Similar clogging in our blood vessels occurs due to fat and cholesterol building up over time. Our drug, we hope, will prevent [or] delay the rise in cholesterol and fat and thus prevent thickening/hardening of the blood vessel. This is like the use of Drano to clean up our plumbing at home.”