How cholesterol-lowering statin drugs improve blood vessel health

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A recent study sheds light on the beneficial effects of statin medications beyond their cholesterol-lowering properties.

Statins, widely prescribed to reduce cholesterol levels, have long been observed to offer broader cardiovascular benefits.

This research unveils the mechanism by which statins protect the cells lining blood vessels, providing deeper insights into their wide-ranging advantages.

With over 40 million Americans taking statins, these findings hold profound implications for public health.

Understanding Statins and Their Wider Benefits

Statins, derived from compounds found in mold and fungi, were initially developed in the 1980s to target an enzyme regulating cholesterol production in the liver.

However, clinical trials have indicated that statins offer protection against cardiovascular diseases that extend beyond their cholesterol-lowering function.

Heart failure patients taking statins are less prone to subsequent heart attacks, and these medications have been associated with reduced arterial blockage, lowered inflammation, and even reduced cancer risk.

Yet, the precise underlying mechanisms have remained elusive.

Studying Statins and Blood Vessels

To investigate how statins affect blood vessels, researchers conducted experiments using a common statin, simvastatin, on lab-grown human endothelial cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells.

Endothelial cells form the inner lining of blood vessels, but in various diseases, they transform into mesenchymal cells, which are less functional. These transformed cells contribute to tissue stiffness and impaired vascular function.

The study revealed that simvastatin-treated endothelial cells displayed enhanced functionality, as evidenced by their ability to form capillary-like tubes, indicating improved blood vessel growth.

However, analyzing gene expression in these cells through RNA sequencing yielded few insights. It wasn’t until the researchers used a technique called ATAC-seq that they gained a deeper understanding.

ATAC-seq reveals epigenetic changes, alterations in gene expression that do not involve changes to the genetic code.

Role of Epigenetic Changes

ATAC-seq uncovered significant epigenetic changes in the treated cells related to the way DNA strands are packaged within the cell nucleus.

DNA exists within our cells not as individual strands but as tightly wound structures around proteins called chromatin. The accessibility of specific DNA sequences within chromatin determines their level of expression.

The researchers found that simvastatin-treated cells exhibited closed chromatin structures, reducing the expression of genes responsible for the endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition.

Further investigation revealed that simvastatin prevents the protein YAP from entering the nucleus and opening chromatin. YAP plays a role in developmental processes and abnormal cell growth observed in cancer.

To assess the drug’s effects in a broader context, the researchers tested simvastatin on diabetic mice.

Diabetes leads to subtle blood vessel changes akin to those observed in individuals prescribed statins, particularly in older patients without cardiovascular conditions.

After eight weeks of simvastatin treatment, the diabetic mice demonstrated significantly improved vascular function, with arteries that relaxed and contracted more easily.

Understanding the mechanism behind statins’ benefits can pave the way for fine-tuning these medications to specifically target and rescue vascular function.

Additionally, this research offers a more detailed understanding of vascular disease processes, aiding in the early detection and treatment of vascular damage.


This study unravels the mechanism through which statins enhance blood vessel health, elucidating why these medications offer broader cardiovascular benefits beyond cholesterol reduction.

With millions of individuals taking statins, these findings hold great promise for improving vascular health and advancing our understanding of vascular diseases.

If you care about heart health, please read studies about how eating eggs can help reduce heart disease risk, and herbal supplements could harm your heart rhythm.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about how drinking milk affects risks of heart disease and cancer, and results showing DASH diet is good for your blood pressure, and vegetable diet may reduce heart disease risk.

The research findings can be found in Nature Cardiovascular Research.

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