AstraZeneca said today that a clinical trial of its cholesterol-reducer Crestor showed that the drug could regress coronary artery disease, lifting the company’s shares.

“This is the first time a statin has demonstrated regression of atherosclerosis in a major clinical study,” said the firm in a statement.

The results of the ASTEROID study, due to be presented later today at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting in Atlanta, demonstrated that two years’ treatment with Crestor (rosuvastatin) at a dose of 40mg once a day reversed plaque build-up in the arteries of patients with evidence of coronary artery disease.

Addition of the ASTEROID data to Crestor’s labelling would give the drug’s marketers a unique selling point compared to other statins.

ASTEROID involved 507 patients who had undergone coronary angiography and who had evidence of coronary artery disease. The plaque volume in the target coronary artery was measured at the initial catheterisation using intravascular ultrasound, and again after two years of treatment. The data is being presented this afternoon at the ACC by Steve Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic.

AstraZeneca is hoping that the clinical data will inject some new momentum into Crestor which, while achieving sales of $1.3 billion last year, has failed to meet initial expectations of becoming a $4 billion product and trails well behind the market leader, Pfizer’s Lipitor (atorvastatin) with annual sales of $12 billion.

Crestor, first introduced in 2003, has suffered from discussions about its safety, initially during the regulatory review process but also thereafter. Last year, US pressure group Public Citizen tried and failed to have the drug taken off the market, claiming it was linked to the side effects that caused the withdrawal of Bayer’s Lipobay/Baycol (cerivastatin) from the market in 2001.

AstraZeneca’s shares rose 2% on Friday in the build up to the ACC meeting, and put on another 2% today, trading at £29.35 mid-morning.