An experimental thyroid medication lowers cholesterol just as effectively as statins - the most popularly prescribed cholesterol drugs on the market - and without many of the bothersome side effects, researchers have found in a study released Thursday.
Statins, which include many well-known brands such as Lipitor, Crestor and Zocor, are taken by at least 12 million Americans daily, according to studies, and earn their makers about $36 billion a year. But they also produce side effects, particularly muscle weakness and stiffness and can harm the liver.
The new thyroid compound - eprotirome - has been under development by a Swedish biotech company for about four years, explained Dr. Irwin Klein of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset.
Klein, a member of an international team of researchers who studied the new drug, said the synthetic compound mimics thyroid hormone in the body, reducing cholesterol but not producing the bothersome side effects associated with statins - or other thyroid hormone-based drugs.
As a cardiovascular drug, he said eprotirome reduces the bad form of cholesterol and also reduces lipoprotein-A, a key marker for cardiovascular disease.
Klein, an endocrinologist who has studied thyroid function and thyroid hormones for 30 years, said the concept for the new medication is based on simple observations of people with thyroid function disorders.
People with an underactive thyroid, Klein said, tend to have high cholesterol.
On the flip side, those with highly active thyroid function tend to have low cholesterol levels. Yet, when thyroid hormone is prescribed to accelerate the gland's function, levels of the so-called bad form of cholesterol reduce but a host of other problems arise: heart palpitations, bone thinning and muscle weakness, to name a few.
Reporting in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, Klein and an international team of medical investigators summarize eprotirome's effects.
"This drug represents a new class of medications that might offer hope to those at risk of future cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Paul Ladenson of Johns Hopkins University, the study's lead investigator.
Ladenson said the research of just 189 patients is small but plans for a larger research project are already under way.