Monday, July 27, 2015

The PCSK9 enzyme, LDL cholesterol, and cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular diseases are currently the leading cause of death in most developed countries. They are particularly common among seniors; i.e., those aged 65 and older. Part of the reason for this is that infectious diseases do not kill as many people as they used to.

Given the trend toward population aging, with seniors making up an increasingly larger percentage of the population, the market for drugs against cardiovascular diseases is growing. A new class of such drugs is making the news lately; they target the PCSK9 enzyme ().

Enzymes are (usually) proteins that speed up chemical reactions, and are needed in virtually all metabolic processes that occur in cells. Proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9) is an enzyme that degrades LDL cholesterol receptors on the surface of liver cells. Fewer LDL cholesterol receptors mean reduced uptake of the particles that carry LDL cholesterol, and thus more LDL particles in circulation. This may be problematic if these are small-dense LDL particles ().

Small-dense LDL particles include particles that are significantly smaller than the gaps in the endothelium (). The endothelium is a thin layer of cells that line the interior of arteries. Those gaps are about 25-26 nanometers (nm) in diameter. Small-dense LDL particles can contribute a lot more to the formation of atheromas (atherosclerotic plaques) in predisposed individuals than large-buoyant LDL particles.

There is evidence of the natural occurrence of low LDL cholesterol in individuals of African descent due to genetic mutations influencing PCSK9 levels (). This leads us to a very important question. By reducing PCSK9 in circulation, can we also reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease?

The answer to this question depends on whether LDL cholesterol is a causative factor in cardiovascular disease. If it is, then reducing PCSK9 in circulation can indeed reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease. The problem is that, most of the evidence so far suggests that LDL cholesterol is NOT a causative factor in cardiovascular disease.

Yes, there are studies that show that LDL cholesterol is correlated with cardiovascular disease, but the problem is that LDL cholesterol is a marker of other factors that are better candidates for causes of cardiovascular disease – hence the correlation. For example, LDL cholesterol goes up with mental stress (), and chronic mental stress seems to be a good candidate for a cause of cardiovascular disease.

LDL cholesterol is also a marker of a diet with more saturated fat in it (). In many contexts, a diet with more saturated fat in it is a more nutritious diet, which leads to a negative association between LDL cholesterol and mortality.

The graph below shows the shape of the association between total cholesterol (TOTCHOL) and mortality from all cardiovascular diseases (MVASC), based on an analysis of the China Study II dataset (). LDL cholesterol is the main component of total cholesterol in most people. The values are provided in standardized format; e.g., 0 is the average, 1 is one standard deviation above the mean, and so on. The best-fitting curve was obtained with the software WarpPLS ().

In fact, when we combine the totality of the evidence linking LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases, LDL cholesterol seems to come out as a marker of protective factors. A reflection of this is a widely cited study by Weverling-Rijnsburger and colleagues, of LDL and HDL cholesterol as factors in cardiovascular diseases among people aged 85 and older (). The conclusions of the study were that:

- There was no association between LDL cholesterol level and risk of fatal cardiovascular disease.

- A low HDL cholesterol level was associated with a two-fold higher risk of fatal cardiovascular disease.

- Both low LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol levels were associated with an increased mortality risk from infections.

The results above are particularly interesting because the study participants, given their ages, were at a high risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases. It seems that the best scenario for these folks would have been a concomitant increase in both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, which seems to be exactly what happens when one increases his or her intake of foods rich in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol ()!

Should you take a drug that targets the PCSK9 enzyme, to reduce your LDL cholesterol? Maybe you should ask Peter ().