Cholesterol-Lowering Drug with Different Action Adds to Statin's Reduction of Cardiovascular Risk


Adding another type of cholesterol-lowering drug to statin therapy can better prevent heart attacks and strokes in high-risk patients with acute coronary syndrome.

CHICAGO, Nov. 17, 2014 — Adding another type of cholesterol-lowering drug to statin therapy can better prevent heart attacks and strokes in high-risk patients with acute coronary syndrome (ACS), according to a large, long-term study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2014.

Compared to patients with coronary heart disease given the drug simvastatin plus a placebo, those given both simvastatin and the non-statin drug, ezetimibe, had a 6.4 percent lower risk of all cardiovascular events, a 14 percent lower risk of all heart attacks, a 14 percent lower risk of stroke, and a 21 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke. Deaths from cardiovascular disease were statistically the same in both groups. Patients were followed an average of approximately six years, and some as long as 8.5 years. Approximately 2 patients out of every 100 patients treated for 7 years avoided a heart attack or stroke. (Number Needed to Treat (NNT) = 50).

“The study is the first to show that adding a non-statin drug to a statin to improve cholesterol levels can help patients with specific heart problems do better,” said Christopher P. Cannon, M.D., lead author and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Acute coronary syndrome, such as a heart attack or unstable angina, is an umbrella term for situations where the blood supplied to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked.

The study, called IMPROVE-IT (IMProved Reduction of Outcomes: Vytorin Efficacy International Trial), was done at 1,158 centers in 39 countries. It enrolled 18,144 patients with ACS 50 yrs or older with low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels at or less than 125—or at or less than 100 if they were already using a statin.

“The patients, enrolled within 10 days of hospitalization for a heart attack or unstable angina, were high risk,” Cannon said. About 5,000 of them had suffered a full-thickness heart attack known as an ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction, or STEMI. The remaining 13,000 had suffered a non-STEMI heart attack or had unstable angina, defined by new or worsening chest pain. Patients also had at least one feature putting them at high risk for a further cardiovascular event, including a previous heart attack, diabetes, peripheral artery or cerebrovascular disease, coronary disease in multiple arteries, or bypass surgery in the past.

Statins, such as simvastatin, block cholesterol production in the liver, while ezetimibe, a cholesterol absorption inhibitor, reduces the body’s absorption of cholesterol in the intestine. In the study, the dual therapy reduced patients’ LDL to an average of 54 mg/dL, compared with 69 for those treated with the statin and placebo.

“We took those patients from a clinically appropriate target LDL-C to even lower. We now have solid evidence that lower is good, and even lower can be even better,” he said.

The addition of ezetimibe did not raise patients’ risk of ill effects, such as liver or muscle problems, or cancer. Cannon said. Over a decade ago, researchers from the TIMI Study Group, based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) demonstrated that a high dose statin, which lowered cholesterol further than a regular dose statin, provided better clinical outcomes. But questions remained about whether further reducing cholesterol would be even more effective in reducing cardiovascular-related events. And now, researchers have an answer from the results of the The IMProved Reduction of Outcomes: Vytorin Efficacy International Trial (IMPROVE-IT) study.

Co-authors include study chairmen Eugene Braunwald, M.D., and Robert Califf, M.D., on behalf of the IMPROVE-IT investigators. Vytorin (simvastatin plus exetimibe) maker Merck & Co. supported the study.

Note: Actual presentation is 11:51 a.m. CT /12:51 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 17.

Additional Resources:

  • For more news from the AHA’s Scientific Sessions 2014 follow us on Twitter @HeartNews # AHA14.


Statements and conclusions of study authors that are presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect association policy or position. The association makes no representation or warranty as to their accuracy or reliability. The association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific association programs and events. The association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and device corporations are available at

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