|New hope for beating high cholesterol
To look at her, Shirley Chow would be the last person you would suspect of having dangerously high cholesterol.
Trim and fit at 45, she does aerobics and works out with weights five times a week. She stays away from fatty foods, butter, cheese, eggs and most milk products. And she takes cholesterol-reducing drugs.
Now research being done by Edmonton internist Dr. Gordon Francis and funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research is offering new hope to Chow and others who are suffering from high cholesterol, a major cause of heart disease.
Francis believes that by stimulating production of so-called "good cholesterol," he can encourage the body to regulate its level of "bad cholesterol" in the bloodstream without drugs. But that treatment could be five to 10 years away.
"It would have great implications for Shirley and for anyone else with high cholesterol," says Francis. Chow's level of cholesterol -- the gummy plaque that can build up in the arteries with life-threatening consequences -- is four times the normal level.
Her blood flow is reduced by blockages in her arteries. She underwent heart bypass surgery when she was 29 because the plaque buildup was starving her heart of blood.
A cholesterol deposit the size of a baseball was removed from inside her skull just below her forehead earlier this year.
"What this tells us is that you can be thin and fit and still have high cholesterol," says Francis, Chow's specialist and a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta. "And others can be overweight and inactive but not have high cholesterol."
Chow has a rare genetic disorder that affects one in every 500 Canadians. While one in 50 Canadians have high cholesterol due to diet or genes, most can reduce their levels by laying off fatty foods or by applying a combination of diet and drugs.
But because her condition -- familial hypercholesterolemia -- is passed on to family members, Chow's cholesterol remains dangerously high, despite drugs and a strict diet.
Her two sisters have high cholesterol, too, but are able to control it with drugs.
"It's just something I have had to learn to live with," says Chow, an effervescent, cheery woman of Asian descent.
"It has become part of my routine -- exercising and watching my diet. Staying away from the wrong kind of food is really difficult at Christmas time."
She discovered her malady as a girl when she noticed a cloudy substance in her eyes, which was later diagnosed as a cholesterol buildup.
Despite her efforts to stay in shape and eat properly, she suffered a heart attack in her late 20s and underwent heart bypass surgery to remove a blocked artery.
She went under the knife again in May to remove a cholesterol mass the size of a baseball from just inside her
skull next to her brain. The non-cancerous tumour was pushing on her eyes, making them bulge out.
"It's a very rare complication to have a buildup that big," says Francis.
His research centres on the recent discovery of a protein which boosts the body's natural production of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as "good cholesterol."
The body requires HDL to metabolize low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the "bad cholesterol."
For some reason, he explains, people with high LDL lack sufficient amounts of HDL.
So if he can encourage the body to produce more HDL, it will metabolize more LDL, excreting the "bad cholesterol" through the liver before it can turn into plaque in blood vessels.
With lab research and clinical trials, it could take five to 10 years before such treatment can be used on humans.
"Because Shirley doesn't respond to the cholesterol-reducing drugs, the best kind of treatment for her would be to boost the levels of 'good cholesterol' in her blood, which would naturally reduce the level of 'bad cholesterol,' " he says.
"She's the kind of person who deserves my research."
© Copyright 2002 Edmonton Journal