Doctors say stay with statins

As news of Vytorin’s lackluster performance in clinical tests circulates throughout the medical community, many prominent physicians are advocating a return to the use of statins to treat high cholesterol. Statins, such as Crestor, Zocor, and Lipitor, lower the liver’s production of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Research shows that statins also reduce cardiac events by 60 percent and strokes by 17 percent.

Merck and Schering-Plough teamed up to create Vytorin, a new cholesterol-fighting drug that combined the power of statins with Zetia, a drug that reduces absorption of cholesterol in the intestine. In this way, the battle against cholesterol would occur on both genetic and dietary fronts.

Data from the ENHANCE study, however, revealed that Vytorin was largely a flop. While it lowered LDL cholesterol, it did nothing to actually reduce plaque in the carotid arteries as promised.

Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a Yale University cardiologist, told the Associated Press that “people need to turn back to statins. We know that statins are good drugs. We know they reduce risks.”

Dr. Roger Blumenthal, a Johns Hopkins University cardiologist and spokesman for the American Heart Association, likewise advised against prescribing Vytorin, at least as the first line of treatment. “A lot of us thought that there would be some glimmer of benefit,” he told the AP, adding that doctors should first prescribe more traditional, proven cholesterol lowering drugs before turning to Vytorin.

Dr. John Kastelein, a Dutch scientist and the primary investigator for the ENHANCE trial, sounded the harshest criticism. The AP report quotes him as saying that Vytorin showed “no result . Zilch. In no subgroup, in no segment, was there any added benefit” in patients seeking to reduce plaque buildup.

Studies of Vytorin continue. IMPROVE-IT, an ongoing trial slated to end in 2012, will compare and measure the primary effects of Vytorin and simvastatin alone in approximately 18,000 patients with acute coronary syndrome. Another trial, SHARP is monitoring the results of Vytorin and placebo in kidney patients.