MONDAY, Nov. 5, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A biopharmaceutical company is developing a treatment that aims to prevent repeat heart attacks by using a component of "good" cholesterol to clear arteries of dangerous cholesterol buildup.
"We hope what we have is a new mechanism to go after cholesterol in the days or weeks after a heart attack," said Sam Wright, global strategic director of cardiovascular therapeutics at CSL Limited, which is headquartered in Australia.
The research is in the early stages, and it's far from clear if the potential treatment will work. Still, the preliminary findings are positive, said Wright. And they were to be presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Los Angeles.
According to Wright, up to 20 percent of people who survive a heart attack have another one over the next year. The risk is highest in the first several weeks.
While heart surgeons can often prop open clogged arteries after a heart attack, other arteries can remain blocked, he said. "We'd like to remove the cholesterol from all the arteries and prevent blockades," he said.
In the new study -- which represents the first of three stages of research that drugs must undergo before winning approval in the United States -- researchers gave intravenous doses of a protein from so-called "good" (HDL) cholesterol to 57 healthy volunteers.
The study found that the body quickly began to do a better job of removing "bad" (LDL) cholesterol from cells. While scientists often say that every drug has side effects, the researchers saw no signs of adverse effects related to the treatment.
The treatment appeared to work by boosting the body's ability to dispose of "bad" cholesterol, Wright said. While aspirin and anti-platelet drugs prevent clotting after a heart attack, they don't attack the cholesterol that has built up in artery plaque, the study authors noted.
The researchers are continuing to study the drug in people, and it's unknown if it will actually help reduce the risk of heart attack. Also, it's too early to estimate the cost or determine if it might prevent heart attacks in people with high cholesterol who haven't had a heart attack, Wright said.
Dr. David Brown, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York, predicted that the drug will be expensive. "It also involves processing of human blood, which comes with some risk of spreading infection," he said. "Also, other drugs that increase HDL have not been shown to be of major clinical benefit."
Brown also said it would be unlikely that the drug could be given to anyone with high cholesterol, even those who haven't had heart attacks.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at University of California, Los Angeles, noted that the treatment is given intravenously, which "could be considered a significant drawback" compared to drugs taken by mouth.
It's unclear how often patients would have to undergo the treatment.
Data and conclusions presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has details on heart attack.