Danish discovery can pave the way for more effective cholesterol medicine

Research from Aarhus University sheds new light on how the body converts the bad kind of cholesterol. The discovery could lead to new and potentially more effective medicine.

2017.09.26 | Mette Louise Ohana

Elevated levels of the bad LDL cholesterol increases the risk of premature death from a blood clot in the heart, so there is a great need for medicine which helps the body to remove it from the blood.

More than 600,000 Danes are being treated with cholesterol lowering medicine. 98 per cent of them are treated with statins, which curb the body's own production of cholesterol so that the level of cholesterol falls. However, statins also give rise to the body forming more of a harmful protein – known as PCSK9 – which counters the effect of the statins. New research from Aarhus University has now uncovered the way in which PCSK9 breaks down the LDL receptors, which are a kind of receptor molecule that absorbs the bad LDL cholesterol in the blood into the liver.

This discovery makes it possible to develop potentially more efficient and also cheaper PCSK9 inhibiting medicine, which is the new hope for cholesterol treatment.                         

"Statins save many lives every year, but the medicine has the unfortunate consequence that the liver cells begin to produce more PSCK9. We have now uncovered how PCSK9 is captured by specific molecules in the liver called heparan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPG), which subsequently lead to the breaking down of the LDL receptor. The consequence is less LDL receptor in the liver, higher LDL cholesterol in the blood and an increased risk of blood clots in the heart. If this process is inhibited, the LDL receptor is protected against degradation, and the amount of cholesterol in the blood falls," says Camilla Gustafsen, who is one of the researchers behind the result and assistant professor at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University.

With the discovery, the researchers have provided one of the pieces that has been missing in the puzzle of understanding PCSK9, and this opens up for the development of a new type of medicine that can potentially work far better than statins.

The research result has just been published in the international scientific journal Nature Communications

Potential for better and cheaper medicine

PCSK9 inhibiting medicine is already available on the market, but due to high costs it is only offered to patients who are particularly at risk, as well as those who do not have benefit from or are intolerant to statins. Using the new knowledge about PCSK9, the researchers from Aarhus have begun to develop new medicine that is now ready for the first tests on patients.

"The development of PCSK9 inhibitors is one of the biggest biomedical success stories of recent times, and getting basic research translated into medicine has happened extremely quickly thanks to intense research around the world. But there are still aspects of the PSCK9 protein that we do not yet fully understand. The new discovery shows the potential for creating more effective PCSK9 inhibitors than those we have today, and more cheaply, so that they become accessible for many more people in line with statins," says Simon Glerup, who is one of the driving forces behind the research project and associate professor at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University.

The first medicine must first undergo comprehensive testing and will first be available for patients in five years at the earliest. 


Cardiovascular disease – the figures

  • More than 600,000 Danes are being treated with cholesterol lowering medicine. 98 per cent are being treated with statins.
  • More than 460,000 Danes live with a cardiovascular disease.
  • Just under 160,000 Danes suffer from narrowing of the arteries in the heart.
  • Over 12,000 Danes die of a cardiovascular disease every year, which makes the disease the second most frequent cause of death in Denmark. 

 Source: The Danish Heart Foundation and Medstat.dk 


The research results - more information

Type of study: Basic research

Financing: The Sapere Aude programme under the Independent Research Fund Denmark, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Danish Heart Foundation, the European Research Council and DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft).

Partners: The Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University, Uppsala University and the Max Planck Institute.

Conflicts of interest: The discovery is patented by Aarhus University and is being developed in collaboration with the company Draupnir Bio, which is founded by researchers Simon Glerup, Camilla Gustafsen and Peder Madsen from Aarhus University.

Read the scientific article "Heparan sulfate proteoglycans present PCSK9 to the LDL receptor" in Nature Communications


For more information, please contact

Associate Professor Søren Skou Thirup
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University
Mobile: (+45) 2058 5981

Associate Professor Simon Glerup
Aarhus University, Department of Biomedicine
Mobile: (+45) 5122 1727
Email: glerup@biomed.au.dk

Assistant Professor Camilla Gustafsen
Aarhus University, Department of Biomedicine
Mobile: (+45) 2617 9616
Email: gustafsen@biomed.au.dk

Research