20th Anniversary

20 years of clinical research in cardiology


In February 2003, when Cardiology News published its first edition, there were a handful of articles reporting results from randomized clinical trials. These included a trial of bivalirudin for percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) anticoagulation (REPLACE-2) and a small controlled pilot study of soy nuts for blood pressure reduction in postmenopausal women. Also included was a considered discussion of the ALLHAT findings.

These trials and the incremental gain they offered belie the enormous global impact the cardiology community has had in clinical research over the last several decades. In fact, more than any other medical specialty, cardiology has led the way in evidence-based practice.

Dr. Steven Nissen is chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland (Ohio) Clinic

Dr. Steven Nissen

“When you step back and take a look at the compendium of cardiology advances, it’s unbelievable how much we’ve accomplished in the last 20 years,” said Steven E. Nissen, MD.

Dr. Nissen, a prodigious researcher, is the chief academic officer at the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute, and holds the Lewis and Patricia Dickey Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

The needle mover: LDL lowering

“From a population health perspective, LDL cholesterol lowering is clearly the big winner,” said Christopher Cannon, MD, from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, both in Boston, said in an interview.

Dr. Christopher Cannon, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston

Dr. Christopher Cannon

“We’ve been at it with LDL cholesterol for about 50 years now, but I think things really accelerated over the last 20 years when the conversation shifted from just lowering LDL-C to recognizing that lower is better. This pushed us toward high-intensity statin treatment and add-on drugs to push LDL down further,” he said.

“Concurrent with this increase in the use of statins and other LDL-lowering drugs, cardiovascular death has fallen significantly, which in my mind is likely a result of better LDL lowering and getting people to stop smoking, which we’ve also done a better job of in the last 20 years,” said Dr. Cannon.

Indeed, until cardiovascular mortality started rising in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, mortality rates had been dropping steadily for several decades. The progress in the past 2 decades has been so fast, noted Dr. Cannon, that the American Heart Association’s stated goal in 1998 of reducing coronary heart disease, stroke, and risk by 25% by the year 2008 was accomplished about 4 years ahead of schedule.

Coincidentally, Dr. Cannon and Dr. Nissen were both important players in this advance. Dr. Cannon led the PROVE-IT trial, which showed in 2004 that an intensive lipid-lowering statin regimen offers greater protection against death or major cardiovascular events than does a standard regimen in patients with recent acute coronary syndrome.

That trial was published just months after REVERSAL, Dr. Nissen’s trial that showed for the first time that intensive lipid-lowering treatment reduced progression of coronary atherosclerosis, compared with a moderate lipid-lowering approach.

“Added to this, we have drugs like ezetimibe and the PCSK9 [proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9] inhibitor, and now they’re even using CRISPR gene editing to permanently switch off the gene that codes for PCSK9, testing this in people with familial hypercholesterolemia,” said Dr. Cannon. “In the preclinical study, they showed that with one treatment they lowered blood PCSK9 protein levels by 83% and LDL-C by 69%..”

At the same time as we’ve seen what works, we’ve also seen what doesn’t work, added Dr. Nissen. “Shortly after we saw the power of LDL lowering, everyone wanted to target HDL and we had epidemiological evidence suggesting this was a good idea, but several landmark trials testing the HDL hypothesis were complete failures.” Debate continues as to whether HDL cholesterol is a suitable target for prevention.

Not only has the recent past in lipidology been needle-moving, but the hits keep coming. Inclisiran, a first-in-class LDL cholesterol–lowering drug that shows potent lipid-lowering efficacy and excellent safety and tolerability in phase 3 study, received Food and Drug Administration approval in December 2021. The drugs twice-a-year dosing has been called a game changer for adherence.

And at the 2023 annual scientific sessions of the American College of Cardiology in March, Dr. Nissen presented results of the CLEAR Outcomes trial on bempedoic acid (Nexletol), a 14,000-patient, placebo-controlled trial of bempedoic acid in statin intolerant patients at high cardiovascular risk. Bempedoic acid is a novel compound that inhibits ATP citrate lyase, which catalyzes a step in the biosynthesis of cholesterol upstream of HMG-CoA reductase, the target of statins.

Findings revealed a significant reduction in risk for a composite 4-point major adverse cardiovascular events endpoint of time to first cardiovascular death, nonfatal MI, nonfatal stroke, or coronary revascularization. The trial marks the first time an oral nonstatin drug has met the MACE-4 primary endpoint, Dr. Nissen reported.

“We also have new therapies for lowering lipoprotein(a) and outcome trials underway for antisense and short interfering RNA targeting of Lp(a), which I frankly think herald a new era in which we can have these longer-acting directly targeted drugs that work at the translation level to prevent a protein that is not desirable,” added Dr. Nissen. “These drugs will undoubtedly change the face of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in the next 2 decades.”


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