A rare but serious side effect experienced by people taking the cholesterol-lowering drugs statins may be avoided in up to 60 per cent of cases, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week. The University of Oxford-based research team identified a gene variant linked to 'myopathy' - a rare side-effect causing severe muscle pain and weakness - raising the prospect of a test being developed to identify those at increased risk.
Where necessary, the test could allow those who are not at increased risk from myopathy to benefit from a higher dose of statins, says Professor Rory Collins, who led the study. 'A DNA test based on these findings could guide doctors as to whether a patient at high risk of heart disease will cope with a high dose of a statin, which might be more effective than a standard dose at preventing a heart attack or stroke. If the patient doesn't have the gene variation, they're likely to be at low risk of myopathy even on high statin dose'.
Among those on higher dose of statins, because they are at high risk of heart disease or stroke, the researchers found that those carrying a single copy of the gene variant - known as SLC01B1 - were four times more likely to develop myopathy, and those with two copies sixteen times more likely, than those without the variant.
Given that the incidence of myopathy among patients prescribed standard doses of statins is fairly rare, just one in 10,000, it is anticipated that the test could be used specifically to target those who should not be prescribed higher doses of statins because they are among the one in four people in the general population who are at high risk from myopathy. 'This approach will help us to optimise treatments to prevent heart attacks and strokes in individuals at high risk', Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, which funded the study, told the BBC.