A diabetes drug may protect patients against thickening of the artery walls, a precursor to heart attacks, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Monday.
Thickening of the carotid arteries, which are located in the neck and deliver blood to the brain, is a risk factor for heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. Cholesterol and fat can build up in the inner lining of arteries, forming plaque and causing them to narrow.
Patients with type 2 diabetes taking the older generic drug, glimepiride, saw their artery thickness rise by .012 millimeters after 72 weeks on the drug, while those on pioglitazone saw their artery wall thickness drop by .001 millimeters.
There are about 20.2 million people in the United States with diabetes, and they are at greater risk than the general population for developing this buildup, known as atherosclerosis.
“We are measuring the earliest stages of atherosclerosis — this is the best marker for future heart attack and stroke,” said Dr. Theodore Mazzone, the lead researcher and chief of endocrinology at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Medicine.
Pioglitazone also significantly boosted levels of high density lipoprotein, or HDL, a beneficial type of cholesterol in the blood, the study said.
Japan-based Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., which makes pioglitazone, sold under the brand name Actos, paid for the study of 462 adults with type 2 diabetes.
The vast majority of diabetics have type 2 diabetes, in which the body cannot make enough of hormone insulin or cannot use it effectively.
The prevalence of type 2 diabetes is expected to balloon as the population ages and an increasing proportion of Americans are overweight or obese, experts said.
'Good' cholesterol effect
“The potential advantages of this drug we’ve shown are its effect on carotid (artery thickness) and it had a dramatic effect on HDL cholesterol levels, which is very hard to get,” Mazzone said.
The study found pioglitazone raised HDL levels, which seem to protect against heart attacks, by about 13 percent in patients after 24 weeks, and sustained that increase over the life of the study. The HDL levels remained the same in patients taking glimepiride.
The study will be presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association.
Pioglitazone is in a class of diabetes drugs called thiazolidinediones, which lower the amount of the blood sugar glucose released by the liver and make cells more sensitive to insulin.
The other major medication in the class is GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Avandia.
Mazzone said it was unclear whether rival Avandia would have the same effect on artery wall thickness as pioglitazone.