COMMENTARY

HDL-C: Target of Therapy or Fuggedaboutit?

Steven E. Nissen, MD, MACC; Peter Libby, MD

Disclosures

November 06, 2014

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A Solid Prognostic Biomarker

Steven E. Nissen, MD, MACC: I am Steve Nissen, chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. I am here with Dr Peter Libby, chief of cardiology at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. We are going to discuss high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), a topic that has been very controversial recently. Peter, HDL-C has been a pretty good biomarker. The question is whether it is a good target.

Peter Libby, MD: Since the early days in Berkley, when they were doing ultracentrifugation, and when it was reinforced and put on the map by the Framingham Study,[1] we have known that HDL-C is an extremely good biomarker of prospective cardiovascular risk with an inverse relationship with all kinds of cardiovascular events. That is as solid a finding as you can get in observational epidemiology. It is a very reliable prospective marker. It's natural that the pharmaceutical industry and those of us who are interested in risk reduction would focus on HDL-C as a target. That is where the controversies come in.

Dr Nissen: It has been difficult. My view is that the trials that have attempted to modulate HDL-C or the drugs they used have been flawed. Although the results have not been promising, the jury is yet out. Torcetrapib, the cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) inhibitor developed by Pfizer, had an off-target toxicity.[2] Niacin is not very effective, and there are a lot of downsides to the drug. That has been an issue, but people are still working on this. We have done some studies. We did our ApoA-1 Milano infusion study[3] about a decade ago, which showed very promising results with respect to shrinking plaques in coronary arteries. I remain open to the possibility that the right drug in the right trial will work.

Dr Libby: What do you do with the genetic data that have come out in the past couple of years? Sekar Kathiresan masterminded and organized an enormous collaboration[4] in which they looked, with contemporary genetics, at whether HDL had the genetic markers of being a causal risk factor. They came up empty-handed.

Dr Nissen: I am cautious about interpreting those data, like I am cautious about interpreting animal studies of atherosclerosis. We have both lived through this problem in which something works extremely well in animals but doesn't work in humans, or it doesn't work in animals but it works in humans. The genetic studies don't seal the fate of HDL. I have an open mind about this. Drugs are complex. They work by complex mechanisms. It is my belief that what we have to do is test these hypotheses in well-designed clinical trials, which are rigorously performed with drugs that are clean—unlike torcetrapib—and don't have off-target toxicities.

What About Niacin?

Dr Libby: With respect to the combination of niacin and laropiprant, I have never seen an adverse-effects table like the table in the report of the HPS2-THRIVE study,[5] in which everything lined up with a positive P value on the adverse side.

Dr Nissen: It's true, but we don't know whether it was the niacin or the laropiprant. This was not a pure study of niacin; it was a study of niacin with a prostaglandin D inhibitor. I learned a lesson the hard way, with Vioxx, that it's not easy to mess around with prostaglandins.[6] The question is, how much of it was the niacin and how much of it was the laropiprant? There were also problems with the study itself. The enrolled patients had a low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) level of 63 mg/dL and an HDL-C level of 44 mg/dL. Peter, you take care of patients. When was the last time you gave niacin to a patient with an LDL-C of 63 mg/dL and an HDL-C of 44 mg/dL?

Dr Libby: I was a believer in niacin for my low-HDL-C patients and my patients with high lipoprotein A [Lp(a)] because we didn't have much else, although there is some promise on the horizon. I am stopping it. When I saw the adverse effects, it was a real lesson for us all. Swayed by the biomarkers and the signals from the pre-statin era studies such as the Coronary Drug Project,[7] I put my patients on niacin. It takes a committed patient and doctor because of such troubling side effects as pruritus. I'm stopping it because it took a 20,000-person study to figure out that this drug—at least the combination—was harming people.

An Unmet Need: High Lp(a) Levels

Dr Nissen: I'm going to push back on that and make a couple of points. The HPS2-THRIVE study was flawed. They studied the wrong people. It was not a good study, and AIM-HIGH[8] was underpowered. I am not putting people on niacin. What do you do with a patient whose Lp(a) is 200 mg/dL?

Dr Libby: I'm waiting for the results of the PCSK9 and anacetrapib studies. You can tell me about evacetrapib.[9] Reducing Lp(a) is an unmet medical need. We both care for kindreds with high Lp(a) levels and premature coronary artery disease. We have no idea what to do with them other than to treat them with statins and lower their LDL-C levels.

Dr Nissen: I have taken a more cautious approach with respect to taking people off of niacin. If I have patients who are doing well and tolerating it (depending on why it was started), I am discontinuing niacin in some people. I am starting very few people on the drug, but I worry about the quality of the trial.

Dr Libby: So you are of the "don't start don't stop" school?

Dr Nissen: Yes. It's difficult when the trial is fatally flawed. There were 11,000 patients from China in this study. I have known for years that if you give niacin to people of Asiatic ethnic descent, they have terrible flushing and they won't continue the drug. One question is, what was the adherence? The adverse events would have been tolerable had there been efficacy. The concern here is that this study was destined to fail because they studied a low LDL/high HDL population, a group of people for whom niacin just isn't used.

Triglycerides and HDL: Do We Have It Backwards?

Dr Libby: What about the recent genetic[10] and epidemiologic data that support triglycerides, and apolipoprotein C3 in particular as a causal risk factor? Have we been misled through all of the generations in whom we have been adjusting triglycerides for HDL-C and saying that triglycerides are not a causal risk factor because once we adjust for HDL, the risk goes away? Do you think we got it backwards?

Dr Nissen: The tricky factor here is that because of this intimate inverse relationship between triglycerides and HDL, we may be talking about the same phenomenon. That is one of the reasons that I am not certain we are not going to be able to find a therapy. What if you had a therapy that lowered triglycerides and raised HDL-C? Could that work? Could that combination be favorable? I want answers from rigorous, well-designed clinical trials that ask the right questions in the right populations. I am disappointed, just as I have been disappointed by the fibrate trials.[11,12] There is a class of drugs that raises HDL-C a little and lowers triglycerides a lot.

Dr Nissen: But the gemfibrozil studies (VA-HIT[13] and Helsinki Heart[14]) showed benefit.

The Dyslipidemia Bar Has Been Raised

Dr Libby: Those studies were from the pre-statin era. We both were involved in trials in which patients were on high-dose statins at baseline. Do you think that this is too high a bar?

Dr Nissen: The bar has been raised, and for the pharmaceutical industry, the studies that we need to find out whether lowering triglycerides or raising HDL is beneficial are going to be large. We are doing a study with evacetrapib. It has 12,000 patients. It's fully enrolled. Evacetrapib is a very clean-looking drug. It doesn't have such a long biological half-life as anacetrapib, so I am very encouraged that it won't have that baggage of being around for 2-4 years. We've got a couple of shots on goal here. Don't forget that we have multiple ongoing studies of HDL-C infusion therapies that are still under development. Those have some promise too. The jury is still out.

Dr Libby: We agree on the need to do rigorous, large-scale endpoint trials. Do the biomarker studies, but don't wait to start the endpoint trial because that's the proof in the pudding.

Dr Nissen: Exactly. We have had a little controversy about HDL-C. We often agree, but not always, and we may have a different perspective. Thanks for joining me in this interesting discussion of what will continue to be a controversial topic for the next several years until we get the results of the current ongoing trials.

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