In fact, it works better than the existing treatments.
When fats and cholesterol build up along the insides of blood vessels, the flow of blood through the body can become limited, sometimes resulting in heart attacks or strokes.
The medical term for this condition is atherosclerosis, and it’s extremely common — doctors see over 3 million cases in the US per year. However, the treatments can be costly. The most common drugs used to treat the condition are statins, which is a class of lipid-lowering medications.
According to NPR, as of 2014, over 25 million Americans take statins, at an annual cost up to $13 billion. Plus, the drugs don’t work for every patient.
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Now, a team of international researchers from Germany, the USA, Norway, Australia and Sweden has discovered an unlikely candidate to treat the condition: the main compound in powdered alcohol, called beta-cyclodextrin.
When you pour alcohol into a heap of cyclodextrin, the alcohol molecules cling to the ring-shaped cyclodextrin ones, creating the dry, intoxicating powder that can be used to booze up.
The FDA-approved compound is already used in some pharmaceuticals to help bind the active drug to the fatty acids in the body where it’s needed most. Now, the scientists have discovered that the compound can dissolve away the fatty buildup in blood vessels more effectively than the existing treatments for atherosclerosis.
In order to come to this finding, the researchers fed mice a cholesterol-heavy diet for 12 weeks in order to build up fatty plaques in their blood vessels. After eight weeks, the mice began to receive two injected doses of cyclodextrin per week.
Amazingly, the researchers observed that the plaques were reduced by 46 percent over the remaining four weeks — and this occurred without affecting the overall cholesterol levels in the mice.
"They were far less affected by plaques in their blood vessels than a control group who did not receive any cyclodextrin," Dr. Sebastian Zimmer from the Department of Medicine II of the University Hospital Bonn said in a press statement.
The researchers hypothesize that the compound boosts the activity of immune cells called macrophages, and enables them to attack and dissolve the excess cholesterol without causing inflammation.
The scientists hope that cyclodextrin can be further developed as a treatment for atherosclerosis. Although it’s already on the market as a pharmaceutical solubilizing agent, they say that costly clinical studies are still needed for the new application.
The study results are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.