(CNN) — Bempedoic acid may be an alternative for people who need to lower their cholesterol but can’t or won’t take statins, according to a large study published Saturday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Statins are the most commonly prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs that help lower what’s known as the “bad” cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood; more than 90% of adults who take a cholesterol-lowering medicine use a statin, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Statins are considered safe and effective, but there are millions of people who cannot or will not take them. For some people it causes intense muscle pain. Past research has shown anywhere between 7% and 29% of patients who need to lower cholesterol do not tolerate statins, according Dr. Steven Nissen, a cardiologist and researcher at the Cleveland Clinic and co-author of the new study.
“I see heart patients that come in with terrible histories, multiple myocardial infarction, sometimes bypass surgery, many stents and they say, ‘Doctor, I’ve tried multiple statins, but whenever I take a statin, my muscles hurt, or they’re weak. I can’t walk upstairs. I just can’t tolerate these drugs,’ ” Nissen said. “We do need alternatives for these patients.”
Doctors have a few options, including ezetimibe and a monoclonal antibody called a proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9, or PCSK9 inhibitors for short.
Bempedoic acid, sold under the name Nexletol, was designed specifically to treat statin-intolerant patients. The FDA approved it for this purpose in 2020, but the effects of the drug on heart health had not been fully assessed until this large trial. The new study was funded in part by Esperion Therapeutics, the maker of Nexletol.
What the new study found
For the study, which was presented Saturday at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session with the World Congress of Cardiology, Nissen and his colleagues enrolled 13,970 patients from 32 countries.
All of the patients were statin intolerant, typically due to musculoskeletal adverse effects. Patients had to sign an agreement that they couldn’t tolerate statins “even though I know they would reduce my risk of a heart attack or stroke or death,” and providers signed a similar statement.
The patients were then randomized into two groups. One was treated with bempedoic acid, the other was given a placebo, which does nothing. Researchers then followed up with those patients for up to nearly five years. The number of men and women in the trial were mostly evenly divided, and most participants, some 91%, were White, and 17% were Hispanic or Latino.
The drug works in a similar way that statins do, by drawing cholesterol out of a waxy substance called plaque that can build up in the walls of the arteries and interfere with the blood flow to the heart. If there is too much plaque buildup, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
But bempedoic acid is only activated in the liver, unlike a statin, so it is unlikely to cause muscle aches, Nissen said.
In the trial, investigators found that bempedoic acid was well-tolerated and the percent reduction in the “bad” cholesterol was greater with bempedoic acid than placebo by 21.7%.
The risk of cardiovascular events — including death, stroke, heart attack and coronary revascularization, a procedure or surgery to improve blood flow to the heart — was 13% lower with bempedoic acid than with placebo over a median of 3.4 years.
“The drug worked in primary and secondary prevention patients — that is, patients that had had event and patients who were very high risk for a first event. There were a lot of diabetics. These were very high risk people
,” Nissen said. “So the drug met its expectations and probably did a lot better than a lot of people thought it would do.”
In the group that took bempedoic acid, there were a few more cases of gout and gallstones, compared with people who took a placebo.
“The number is small, and weighing that against a heart attack, I think most people would say, ‘OK I’d rather have a little gout attack,’ ” Nissen said.
Bempedoic acid had no observed effect on mortality, but that may be because the observation period was too short to tell if it had that kind of impact. Earlier trials on statins showed the same; it was only after there were multiple studies on statins that scientists were able to show an impact on mortality.
Dr. Howard Weintraub, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health who did not work on this study, said that while he knows some people will not consider a medication successful unless it reduces mortality, he thinks that is short-sighted.
“I think there’s more to doing medicine then counting body bags,” Weintraub said.”Preventing things that can be life changing, crippling, and certainly change your quality of life forever going forward, and your cost of doing things going forward, I think is a good thing.”
He was pleased to see the results of this trial, especially since the people in this study are often what he called “forgotten individuals” — the millions who could benefit from lowering their cholesterol, but can’t take statins.
“It’s not like their LDL was 180 or 190 or 230, their LDL was 139. This is about average in our country,” Weintraub said. He said often doctors will just tell those patients to watch their diet, but he thinks this suggests they would benefit from medication.
“Both groups primary and secondary prevention got benefit, which I think is impressive with the modest amount of LDL reduction,” Weintraub said.
Statins still ‘the gold standard’
There are some limitations to this trial. It was narrowly focused on patients with a known statin intolerance. Nissen said the trial was not designed to determine whether bempedoic acid could be an alternative to statins.
“Statins are the gold standard. They are the cornerstone. The purpose of this study was not to replace statins, but to allow an alternative therapy for people who simply cannot take them,” Nissen said.
Bempedoic acid is a much more expensive drug than a statin. There are generic versions of statins and some cost only a few dollars. Bempedoic acid, on the other hand, has no generic alternative and a 30-day supply can cost more than $400, according to GoodRx.
“I think what insurance companies need to recognize that even though this drug is going to cost more than statins, having a heart attack or a stroke or needing a stent is expensive. A 23% reduction in (myocardial infarctions) is a considerable reduction,” Weintraub said.
In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine that accompanied the study, Dr. John H. Alexander, who works in the division of cardiology at Duke Clinical Research Institute, Duke Health, Durham said that doctors should take these results into consideration when treating patients with high cholesterol who can’t take statins.
“The benefits of bempedoic acid are now clearer, and it is now our responsibility to translate this information into better primary and secondary prevention for more at-risk patients, who will, as a result, benefit from fewer cardiovascular events,” Alexander wrote.
Dr. Manesh Patel, a cardiologist and volunteer with the American Heart Association who was not a part of the study, said that providers are already prescribing bempedoic acid for some patients, but with this new research, he thinks they will quickly be used with more statin-intolerant patients.
“We continue to see that if we can lower your LDL significantly, we improve people’s cardiovascular health. And so we need as many different arrows in our quiver to try to get that done,” Patel said.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer for men and women in the world. One person dies every 34 seconds in the US from cardiovascular disease, according to the CDC. About 697,000 people in the US died from heart disease in 2020 alone — about the same number as the population of Oklahoma City.
“Given the number of people that are eligible for statins, which are tens of millions of patients already, the number of people who cannot tolerate statins is in the millions,” Nissen said. “This is a big public health problem and I think we’ve come up with something that directly addresses this.”
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