- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine are organizing a major study to find out if taking cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease for some patients.

Dr. Xuemei Huang, medical director of the Parkinson’s program at the school in Chapel Hill, said researchers need to determine if having low levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called “bad cholesterol,” are a “cause or a consequence” of Parkinson’s.

“We know there is an association, but we don’t know if they are a cause,” said Dr. Huang, adding that the study “could lead to an understanding of what causes Parkinson’s disease.”

Parkinson’s is an progressive neurodegenerative disorder typically affecting 1 percent to 2 percent of the population 60 and older. The lifetime risk for the disease — marked by symptoms such as tremors, muscle rigidity, limited mobility and difficulty writing and dressing — is higher in men than women.

The prospective, 16,000-person study comes on the heels of other research Dr. Huang conducted, which examined 236 subjects with different levels of LDL. The study included 124 persons diagnosed with Parkinson’s and 112 controls.

Just as Dr. Huang still does not know if reduced levels of LDL cause Parkinson’s, she said she also has not established a causal link between statins and the disease.

She advised those who take statins “not to get panicky” and stop taking the medications because of her recent findings. Statins protect against heart disease and stroke, she said, and those life-threatening conditions are far more prevalent than Parkinson’s.

In the U.S., some 12 million Medicare Part D beneficiaries take statin drugs, such as Pfizer’s Lipitor, and Merck’s Zocor, to clear LDL from arteries.

A key goal of the new study, Dr. Huang said, will be to determine if statins are “protective against neurodegenerative diseases,” which some have hypothesized, or if their widespread use helps promote prevalence of Parkinson’s.

Dr. Ronald Ziman, a California neurologist and board member of the American Parkinson Disease Association, said he is intrigued by the study.

“Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative illness like Alzheimer’s. We know lipid profiles have a bearing on Alzheimer’s, and there are a lot of similarities between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. So I wouldn’t be surprised by the link” between LDL and Parkinson’s that the University of North Carolina team described,” Dr. Ziman said, adding:

“Guidelines have been put forward for [further] extraordinary reductions in LDL. But this new research could be the first indication of the advisability of a floor for levels of LDL.”

Pfizer Inc. did not respond to a request for comments on the studies completed and planned by Dr. Huang.

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