5 Things to Know about Lp(a)
Lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a), is an independent risk factor for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the US and globally . You may have heard of LDL cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol,” as a risk factor for heart disease, but Lp(a) can be just as dangerous. Lp(a) flies under the radar of many physicians. This is because the awareness of Lp(a) is still very low, very little is understood about the protein and the treatment options are limited.
What is LP(a)?
Lp(a), pronounced “LP little a,” is a protein that is attached to LDL cholesterol. It is composed of an LDL-like particle, but it has a second protein coiled around it. Recent studies have shown that people born with elevated Lp(a) can be two to four times as likely to have a heart attack or serious cardiac related risk. Lp(a) is present in 20% of the population.
What differentiates LP(a) from other heart disease risk factors?
LP(a) is so unique because it is a completely genetic risk factor. Meaning, having an elevated LP(a) is almost entirely determined by the genes you inherit. There is no evidence that a healthy lifestyle will lower your Lp(a). However, that does not mean those with high levels shouldn’t practice healthy habits. Reducing other risk factors that are determined by quality of health can still reduce the overall risk of heart disease.
Another risk factor that sets LP(a) apart is that it is an independent risk factor. It has been linked to heart disease in younger adults who are otherwise healthy and have no prior cardiovascular risks. Elevated LP(a) has affected the lives of many who are otherwise healthy. For example, Tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who had his first heart attack at age 36. Bob Harper, a celebrity fitness trainer was also affected and nearly died of a heart attack at age 52.
Who should be tested for Lp(a)?
Studies show that there is a higher risk of a cardiovascular event if Lp(a) levels start to rise above 30 mg/dl. There is an even greater risk at levels 50 mg/dl and higher. There are an estimated one in seven people at or above this threshold. If you’ve had a cardiac event but your cholesterol levels are normal, or you have a family member with heart disease at an early age, have a cardiovascular event despite normal lipid levels, have a family history of Lp(a), or have aortic valvular disease at an early age then you should get tested for Lp(a).
As mentioned, Lp(a) is a genetically mediated risk factor. “This means it runs in families,” Albert Lopez, MD, DO, FASPC, internal physician and lipid specialist in Jacksonville, FL says. “Those individuals that have it, you have a 50% chance of giving to your children.” Dr. Lopez believes there should be cascade screening, meaning asking family members if they have it and then getting tested.
No FDA approved remedies for Lp(a)
Currently there are no FDA approved remedies for elevated Lp(a). Statins, a widely known and used therapy that lowers LDL cholesterol does not reduce Lp(a) and has been shown to sometimes result in a slight increase. One therapy that has been shown to work is asphersis. This process filters a patient’s blood by circulating it through a machine and removing Lp(a) particles. However, this process is reserved for high-risk patients because it is extremely expensive, requires weekly visits and involves risks. After stopping apheresis, the Lp(a) levels begin to rise again.
New Advancements in Science regarding Lp(a)
Luckily, there are new drugs on the horizon that could potentially help those suffering from elevated Lp(a) levels. “What is exciting is that we are in totally nerd, sci-fi treatments now,” Dr. Lopez says. “We can actually stop your genes from making this protein by using a little snip that crinkles it up and doesnt let it read.” In other words, new studies are using gene silencing techniques to achieve a large and durable reduction of Lp(a).
These therapies and medicines are still in clinical trials now. ENCORE Research group is conducting research studies for people with elevated Lp(a) in hopes to find a drug that will lower Lp(a) levels. It is up to the public to participate in these research studies to help those suffering from elevated Lp(a) levels.