The average study participant had HDL levels around 40, which, according to the American Heart Association, borders on low for both men and women. The study results showed that the average patient achieved levels around 100, a 138 percent increase. HDL cholesterol levels around 60 or higher give some protection against heart disease.
Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of the department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, said the results could mean a good strategy for raising HDL.
"Raising HDL levels has been a therapeutic target where we have not had any major success, so the fact that we're on the verge to getting HDL higher would be a major deal," said Nissen.
Exercise, cutting out unhealthy foods, drinking (some) red wine and eating (a little) dark chocolate have all been shown to contribute to natural increases in HDL levels. But Dr. Merle Myerson, director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Program at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, said that low HDL can still be tough to improve, with or without medication.
"Statins and niacin do raise [HDL] (and lowering very elevated Triglycerides also helps raise HDL) but many times it is 'stubborn' and we do not see much of a raise," Myerson said in an e-mail.
While the results are certainly intriguing, many doctors warn that it will be very important to watch for the results of a bigger trial to see how the drug will affect the general population.
"This study was too small and too short to definitively answer the question," said Nissen. "It's a door opening but not a final answer."
Cannon agrees, which is why a four-year, 30,000-participant, international trial led by Oxford investigators will begin early next year. Researchers will examine the effects of the drug on patients who are on a statin and have known heart disease.
Until then, Krumholz said that the medical world will have to wait to know if the promise of the current results will be fulfilled.
"[This study] has great significance for those who hope that we can introduce a new drug that will markedly reduce risk of cardiovascular disease in those for whom current strategies are inadequate," said Krumholz. "The implication for patients will have to wait until the next study."