Crestor artery plaque regression reconfirmed-study

CHICAGO, March 31 (Reuters) - A new look at a two-year-old study of AstraZeneca Plc's AZN.L potent Crestor cholesterol fighter bolsters earlier findings that the drug is able to reverse buildup of plaque in heart arteries, researchers said on Monday.

The finding, which was presented at the American College of Cardiology scientific meeting, reconfirmed the previous result while underscoring the message that “lower is better” when it comes to levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. It also suggests that higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol can help keep arteries clear of artery-clogging fats.

“It probably reinforces the thought we should be lowering LDL cholesterol very intensively,” Dr. Christie Ballantyne, a Baylor College cardiologist who was lead investigator for the study, said in an interview.

“It’s not a new message, but it’s an important message,” he said.

Crestor, which cut LDL by an average of 53 percent in the so-called Asteroid study, is considered among the most potent of the widely used statin class of cholesterol fighters. Its biggest rivals are Pfizer Inc's PFE.N Lipitor and Vytorin, a combination drug sold by Schering-Plough Corp SGP.N and Merck and Co MRK.N.

While other drugs have been shown to prevent heart attacks and stroke, the Asteroid study made headlines in 2006, when Crestor became the first drug to actually reduce artery plaque in a clinical trial.

Ballantyne said no trials have been completed that prove plaque regression saves lives, but he suggested that such a conclusion makes sense.

“If the rate of progression is less than zero, that should be a good thing,” he said.

Highly favorable initial findings of the trial had shown plaque was reduced 7 to 9 percent in heart arteries as measured by a relatively new intravenous ultrasound technology called IVUS that looked a fat build-up in the arterial wall.

The latest evaluation, however, employed an older and widely used technology called Quantitative Coronary Angiography, in which a dye is introduced into arteries, allowing doctors to measure narrowing of the blood vessels.

Clogging in at least 94 percent of patients taking Crestor remained stable, or regressed, during the two-year study, according to measurements used to assess blockages.

“The area of greatest narrowing got bigger,” Ballantyne said, referring to diminished plaque in the vessels.

He noted that the earlier IVUS measurements focused on individual arteries that were than less than 50 percent clogged, whereas the new measurements focused on the entire complex of heart arteries, regardless of level of clogging.

The trial included 507 patients with heart disease who took maximum 40-milligram daily doses of Crestor for two years.

The average patient began the study with “bad” cholesterol of 132, which was slashed by 53.3 percent to 61 by the end of the study. Levels of HDL, the “good” form of cholesterol that removes excess LDL from the bloodstream, increased by almost 14 percent to 48.