Scientists at Elucida Research claim to be on the trail of an entirely new class of heart medication.

Harvard researcher R. Preston Mason and colleagues at the Massachusetts biotech firm say their evidence suggests that astaxanthin, a naturally occurring carotenoid compound, shows promise as a basis for novel

antioxidant/anti-inflammatory agents that could constitute the “third wave” of preventive drugs after statins and anti-platelet treatments.

Dr Fredric Pashkow, Elucida’s Chief Medical Officer and former head of US

Medical Affairs for cardiovascular drugs at Sanofi-Aventis, said astaxanthin

stood out as an exceptionally interesting candidate for development.

He added that the work from Mason’s lab suggests astaxanthin could provide a platform for the discovery of an entirely new class of safe, cardiovascular drugs. “These potent antioxidants may be the third big wave in the modern therapy for the secondary prevention of heart attack and stroke.”

The claims are based on published proof-of-concept, pre-clinical and anecdotal human data together with the results of the Mason study, which looked at astaxanthin’s effects on lipid peroxidation due to membrane interactions. “In the heart, these agents probably will work by recalibrating the cellular oxidation balance in order to blunt the cell and tissue inflammatory response to injury and limit damage to the myocardium,” Dr Pashkow said.

Altering the progress of atherosclerosis

In addition, by limiting the amount of oxidative damage to LDL, the “bad

cholesterol,” an astaxanthin derivative could alter the progress of

atherosclerosis, the underlying inflammatory process that clogs arteries and is responsible for most heart attacks and strokes when an atherosclerotic plaque ruptures.

Dr Pashkow said that statins represented the “first big wave” of cardiovascular preventive therapy. They proved to lower the risk of a second heart attack or cardiovascular death by 45% over five years, though more than half of the people treated did not realise their benefit.

Increasing the dose of the statin improves the outcome and extends the benefits to people who have risk factors alone such as high cholesterol, but dose limiting side effects emerge especially when the drugs are taken for a long time.

Antiplatelet therapies, particularly aspirin and aspirin in combination with

other antiplatelet agents represented the “second big wave” of preventive

therapies following a heart attack.

However, an appreciable segment of the population are 'resistant' to

antiplatelet therapy and remain relatively unprotected. In addition some

antiplatelet therapies, or increased doses of aspirin increase the risk of

bleeding. “This wave of treatments,” said Pashkow “may be peaking as well.”

Another company, Cardax Pharmaceuticals, is exploring the use of astaxanthin and novel astaxanthin derivatives, as well as other carotenoids, for use as new drugs. By Michael Day