New research suggests that popular statin drugs may not only lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol but also raise levels of "good" HDL cholesterol.
The researchers are hopeful that treatments to raise HDL cholesterol could one day be combined with statins to help patients with heart and artery disease.
The research implies that the 18 million plus American patients who are taking statins to help them lower their "bad" LDL cholesterol may be getting an extra benefit, a boost to their "good" HDL cholesterol.
Lead study author Stephen Nicholls of the department of cardiovascular medicine at Cleveland Clinic, says statin drugs have been around for 15 years and are very effective in lowering LDL cholesterol.
Nicholls says there was also some evidence that they worked in different ways and the prospect that even a modest increase in HDL levels can improve a patient's chances of avoiding heart disease is good news.
The researchers analyzed four other studies and found that improvements in HDL levels are linked to a reduced risk of blocked arteries; they also found that even when HDL did not go up by very much, patients saw substantial improvement in blocked arteries.
Statins are a class of drugs that includes Lipitor, Crestor and Zocor and are in the main used to lower levels of LDL cholesterol, thereby limiting the formation of artery-blocking plaque.
But the team found they may also raise HDL levels between 5 and 10 percent which possibly provided the small extra boost needed to further improve patients' chances of avoiding artery blockage.
Nicholls says even a 5 to 10 percent increase had a marked benefit in the patients.
Nicholls and his colleagues also found that those patients who experienced the most significant boosts in their HDL levels saw a regression in plaque indicating that the higher HDL levels to some extent, "cleaned out" their arteries.
However although most heart experts agree that raising HDL could be a promising approach to treating heart disease, not all are convinced that such modest increases could be responsible for the positive effects and some say other factors could be at play.
The study comes months after clinical trials of a new drug Torcetrapib were stopped a few months ago after it was found that patients taking the drug experienced a higher risk of death than those who did not take it.
Experts had hoped the drug which was designed to raise levels of HDL cholesterol in patients by up to 60 percent, would provide a blockbuster treatment for those with heart disease.
The findings could also promote a renewed initiative for treatment with niacin which has been shown to raise HDL levels 30 to 40 percent in heart disease patients.
Niacin too has it's drawbacks mainly in the form of flushing, where a hot, sometimes itchy sensation is accompanied by a reddening or blushing of the skin.
The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.