Fats and cholesterol that build up along the insides of blood vessels can limit the flow of blood around the heart, causing heart attacks or strokes. To treat this condition, called atherosclerosis, millions of Americans take drugs every day—the most popular of these, statins, alone cost up to $13 billion per year in 2014, and these don’t work for every patient. Now scientists have discovered that a compound already approved by the FDA can dissolve away this buildup in the blood vessels more effectively than existing treatments. The researchers published their study today in Science Translational Medicine.
The compound is called beta-cyclodextrin, and it’s already used in some pharmaceuticals to bind the active drug to fatty acids in the body where it is most needed.
Now, here’s the good news: beta-cyclodextrin is also the main ingredient used to make powdered alcohol. Pour booze into a heap of cyclodextrin, and the alcohol molecules cling to the ring-shaped cyclodextrin molecules, making a fluffy dry powder that packs a punch.
The researchers suspected that the same compound delivered into the blood stream could bind to those plaques around the blood vessels.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers fed mice a cholesterol-heavy diet for 12 weeks, which they knew would lead to a buildup of fatty plaques in their blood vessels. After eight weeks, they started injecting the mice with cyclodextrin twice per week. Over the remaining four weeks, the researchers found that the compound reduced the plaques by 46 percent without affecting the mice’s overall cholesterol level. The researchers suspect that the cyclodextrin boosts the activity of immune cells called macrophages, enabling them to attack excess cholesterol without causing inflammation.
The researchers aren’t quite sure of the pathway that cyclodextrin uses to reduce the plaques characteristic of atherosclerosis—that will require more experiments and further analysis. And they will need to conduct clinical trials to make sure the compound has the same effect on humans as it did on mice. Still, they write, their findings are a promising start to find a new use for cyclodextrin that’s a little more healthful than getting you wasted.