Should We Test Lipoprotein(a) to Predict Risk for Atherosclerosis?

Deepak Voora, MD


December 12, 2012

Apolipoprotein(a) Genetic Sequence Variants Associated With Systemic Atherosclerosis and Coronary Atherosclerotic Burden but Not With Venous Thromboembolism

Helgadottir A, Gretarsdottir S, Thorleifsson G, et al
J Am Coll Cardiol. 2012;60:722-729

Study Summary

The LPA gene codes for apolipoprotein(a), which, when linked with low-density lipoprotein particles, forms lipoprotein(a) [Lp(a)] -- a well-studied molecule associated with coronary artery disease (CAD). The Lp(a) molecule has both atherogenic and thrombogenic effects in vitro, but the extent to which these translate to differences in how atherothrombotic disease presents is unknown.

LPA contains many single-nucleotide polymorphisms, and 2 have been identified by previous groups as being strongly associated with levels of Lp(a) and, as a consequence, strongly associated with CAD. However, because atherosclerosis is thought to be a systemic disease, it is unclear to what extent Lp(a) leads to atherosclerosis in other arterial beds (eg, carotid, abdominal aorta, and lower extremity), as well as to other thrombotic disorders (eg, ischemic/cardioembolic stroke and venous thromboembolism). Such distinctions are important, because therapies that might lower Lp(a) could potentially reduce forms of atherosclerosis beyond the coronary tree.

To answer this question, Helgadottir and colleagues compiled clinical and genetic data on the LPA gene from thousands of previous participants in genetic research studies from across the world. They did not have access to Lp(a) levels, but by knowing the genotypes for 2 LPA variants, they inferred the levels of Lp(a) on the basis of prior associations between these variants and Lp(a) levels.[1] Their studies included not only individuals of white European descent but also a significant proportion of black persons, in order to widen the generalizability of their results.

Their main findings are that LPA variants (and, by proxy, Lp(a) levels) are associated with CAD, peripheral arterial disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm, number of CAD vessels, age at onset of CAD diagnosis, and large-artery atherosclerosis-type stroke. They did not find an association with cardioembolic or small-vessel disease-type stroke; intracranial aneurysm; venous thrombosis; carotid intima thickness; or, in a small subset of individuals, myocardial infarction.


The main conclusion to draw from this work is that Lp(a) is probably a strong causal factor in not only CAD, but also the development of atherosclerosis in other arterial trees. Although there is no evidence from this study that Lp(a) levels contribute to venous thrombosis, the investigators do not exclude a role for Lp(a) in arterial thrombosis.

Large-artery atherosclerosis stroke is thought to involve some element of arterial thrombosis or thromboembolism,[2] and genetic substudies of randomized trials of aspirin demonstrate that individuals with LPA variants predicted to have elevated levels of Lp(a) benefit the most from antiplatelet therapy.[3] Together, these data suggest that Lp(a) probably has clinically relevant effects on the development of atherosclerosis and arterial thrombosis.

Of note, the investigators found no association between Lp(a) and carotid intima thickness, suggesting that either intima thickness is a poor surrogate for the clinical manifestations of atherosclerosis or that Lp(a) affects a distinct step in the atherosclerotic disease process that is not demonstrable in the carotid arteries.

Although Lp(a) testing is available, these studies do not provide any evidence that testing for Lp(a) is of clinical benefit, or that screening for atherosclerosis should go beyond well-described clinical risk factors, such as low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, high-density lipoprotein levels, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and family history. Until evidence demonstrates that adding information on Lp(a) levels to routine clinical practice improves the ability of physicians to identify those at highest risk for atherosclerosis, Lp(a) testing should remain a research tool. Nevertheless, these findings do suggest that therapies to lower Lp(a) may have benefits that extend to forms of atherothrombosis beyond the coronary tree.