Editing a cholesterol gene could bring cardiovascular diseases to an end

A volunteer becomes the first person to receive DNA editing to lower their cholesterol.
Deniz Yildiran
iStock/vchal 

People may find it hard to be on a strict diet, even if it means giving up on their health in some cases. There's no doubt that bad cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death, and stroke, the fifth leading cause of death. But fear not; science is advancing, and so are the ways to stop such health conditions. 
In a new trial conducted by the U.S. biotechnology company Verve Therapeutics, a volunteer in New Zealand has undergone DNA editing to lower their bad cholesterol, MIT Technology Review reported.

The treatment is expected to permanently decrease LDL levels in the patient's blood. 

During the trial, the researchers used a different version of the gene-editing tool CRISPR to modify a single letter of DNA in the patient’s liver cells. This version, called base editing, is different than traditional CRISPR in that it replaces a single letter of DNA with another and doesn't cut the gene in question. The research team at Verve focused on the gene called PCSK9, which helps regulate LDL levels in the blood, and they imply that the new process will turn off the gene.

In the long term, the company is confident that the adapted version of CRISPR will help millions who are suffering from cardiovascular disease due to high cholesterol levels. 

“If this works and is safe, this is the answer to heart attack—this is the cure,” Sekar Kathiresan, a gene researcher who started Verve three years ago and is the company’s CEO, told MIT Technology Review.

How does it work? 

There's more to this trial. Doctors will conduct the same gene treatment on 40 people who inherited a form of high cholesterol called familial hypercholesterolemia (F.H.). These patients' cholesterol levels are twice the average, and they're not just adults; the condition can also affect young children.  

The base-editing technique is similar to mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines; the treatment involves genetic instructions in a nanoparticle that transports them into a cell. The vaccine makes cells create a component of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while the particles in the base editing process convey RNA directions so that a cell can assemble a base-editing protein, modifying the cell’s copy of PCSK9.

The company previously conducted the same experiment on monkeys and found that the treatment decreased LDL levels by 60 percent. The levels remained low for more than a year, and the effect is expected to be permanent.  

What else could be done to keep bad cholesterol levels in check?

Various factors increase your bad cholesterol levels, with the initial factor being a poor diet. Junk food, saturated fat, and frequently consuming animal products play an important role when it comes to increasing those levels. Having a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and excess alcohol use pretty much do the same harm. Briefly, staying away from the factors listed above could help decrease LDL levels; however, new habits can be hard to adapt to, which keeps most people from sticking to healthy ones. 

Statins, which could decrease the LDL levels by 50 percent, are commonly prescribed in the U.S., but not everyone is able to deal with the side effects; some can't even remember to take a pill every day.