Miracle or madness: will anti-cholesterol vaccine protect you from heart attack?

Is this a medical miracle to prevent death or debilitating disability from heart attack and stroke? Or more science madness and a way for drug companies to make money from a drug none of us really needs? US scientists say they’re close to a cholesterol ‘vaccine’ that does away with daily use of statins, as blockbuster cholesterol-lowering drugs are known. They say their vaccine will work better than statins alone and will be much cheaper. Here are some likely implications. – Marika Sboros

By Marika Sboros

cholesterol vaccineUS scientists believe they are on the brink of developing a vaccine “against cholesterol”. At least that is how a UK Daily Telegraph report hailed a study by University of New Mexico and the National Institutes of Health researchers published in the journal, Vaccine.

I’m hoping that was just journalistic poetic license and the scientists didn’t actually say that – as if cholesterol were some sort of plague against which we need any protection.

Presumably the study authors, among them Dr Bryce Chackerian, University of New Mexico associate professor of the molecular genetics and microbiology, know cholesterol is essential in the body – that without it, you’d be dead.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance present in every bodily cell. It makes cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D, and substances to help you digest food.

Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs. Cholesterol is also in foods such as eggs. It’s the reason eggs became pariah foods until the experts realised they got it all wrong about dietary saturated fat, cholesterol, heart attack and stroke.

Yet scientists and doctors still want you drugs to take drugs to drop your cholesterol ever lower – to levels other specialists say are positively dangerous.

Read also: What’s up doc? Why you STILL missing the beat on heart health?

I’ve often wondered what it is about cholesterol that makes even the most brilliant scientific and medical minds lose all logic and perspective. Then I remind myself of two possible answers:

First: these experts still subscribe to the discredited, unscientific “diet-heart hypothesis” – the one premised on the notion that saturated fat causes heart disease; the idea that “ fat in the diet equals fat in the arteries”.

Second: follow the money – the irresistible lure of loads of lolly to be made from yet another blockbuster drug to lower cholesterol levels now that statins have fallen out of favour and patents have expired.

Malcolm KendrickStatins were heralded as “wonder drugs” when they first came onto the market in 1989. They quickly became blockbusters, the world’s most prescribed pharmaceutical preparation and “the most profitable drug in the history of medicine”.

The most well known statin is Pfizer’s atorvastatin sold under the trade name Lipitor. It became the best-selling drug ever with $12 billion in annual sales in 2008.

The vaccine report’s authors are bullish in its praise – and seeking a patent.

In a Science Daily report, Chackerian says: “One of the most exiting things about this new vaccine is it seems to be much more effective than statins alone.”

That’s not hard, since statins alone haven’t lived up to their promise.

If you doubt it, read a brilliant book, The Great Cholesterol Con, by Scottish GP Dr Malcolm Kendrick.

Most cardiologists will say statins have a place for secondary protection – after a heart attack or stroke – but not for primary prevention. Statins do lower cholesterol but experts have been warning for decades that lowering cholesterol isn’t always a smart thing to do. In fact, it can be downright dangerous.

Read also: Statins: is your doctor at the heart of the ‘Great Cholesterol Con’?

The latest research shows that at best statins extend life by a measly four days. They also come heavily burdened with a list of side effects so long and so serious, they offset any benefits.

And anyway, cholesterol is proving not to be the most important marker for heart attack and stroke risk.

As US physician scientist Prof Eric Westman, Duke University associate professor of medicine, told me in a recent interview, it is nonsense to talk of “good” or “bad” cholesterol – if you know anything about body chemistry, .

Westman is a world authority on low-carbohydrate, high-fat dietary interventions to cure heart disease, obesity, diabetes and just about any other serious illness you can think of. He says “good” cholesterol can be “bad”, and “bad” cholesterol can be “good”.

He favours food as first-resort medicine – according to the ancient Hippocratic injunction to doctors to “let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” – rather than drugs with serious side effects.

Read also: Gary Taubes on carbs: they make you fat and give you heart disease

The new vaccine is said to work by targeting a protein called PCSK9, which regulates the cholesterol in the blood.

PCSK9 inhibitors drugs are already on the market –market without data to show efficacy or safety, and they are prohibitively expensive.

In a scathing blog on the topic, Kendrick does an effective demolition job on what he calls the “dreaded PCSK9 inhibitors”:

Read also: New cholesterol drugs: Should you take them? Take care!

It seems to me this vaccine, if it lives up to any promise, will be useful for those who don’t want to, or  can’t for whatever reason, make  dietary and lifestyle changes. It won’t   heal cardiovascular disease if you already have it, or prevent it safely and effectively without the use of drugs.