The last 20 years have witnessed dramatic reductions in cardiovascular risk using 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors (“statins”) to lower levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C). Using this approach one can achieve a reduction in the risk of major cardiovascular events of 21% for every 1 mmol/l (39 mg/dl) decrease in LDL-C. However, despite intensive therapy with high dose “statins” to lower LDL-C levels below 2.6 mmol/l (100 mg/dl), the risk of a major cardiovascular event in patients with established coronary artery disease remains significant at a level approaching an annual risk of 9%, paving the way for new strategies for reducing the residual cardiovascular risk in this patient group. Early epidemiological studies have identified low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) (<1.0 mmol/l or 40 mg/dl), a common feature of type 2 diabetes mellitus and the metabolic syndrome, to be an independent determinant of increased cardiovascular risk. The beneficial effects of HDL-C on the cardiovascular system have been attributed to its ability to remove cellular cholesterol, as well as its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antithrombotic properties, which act in concert to improve endothelial function and inhibit atherosclerosis, thereby reducing cardiovascular risk. As such, raising HDL-C in patients with aggressively lowered LDL-C provides an additional strategy for addressing the residual cardiovascular risk present in these patients groups. Studies suggest that for every 0.03 mmol/l (1.0 mg/dl) increase in HDL-C, cardiovascular risk is reduced by 2–3%. Raising HDL-C can be achieved by both lifestyle changes and pharmacological means, the former of which include smoking cessation, aerobic exercise, weight loss and dietary manipulation. Therapeutic strategies have included niacin, fibrates, thiazolidinediones and bile acid sequestrants. Newly developed pharmacological agents include apolipoprotein A-I mimetics and the cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) inhibitors, JTT-705 and torcetrapib, the latter of which has been recently withdrawn from clinical testing because of serious adverse effects. Emerging experimental studies investigating the complex pathways of HDL metabolism have identified several new targets for raising HDL-C with new pharmaceutical agents currently in development. For the time being, the long-acting formulations of nicotinic acid remain the most effective and best tolerated pharmacological strategy for raising HDL-C in patients already on statin therapy to control LDL-C. Therefore, raising HDL-C represents an important strategy for reducing residual cardiovascular risk in patients already optimally treated with statins, and should lead to further improvements in clinical outcomes in these patient groups.
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Competing interests: None.