Could a Diabetes Drug Benefit the Heart?

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In a new twist, researchers have just learned that a drug meant to treat sensitivity to insulin caused by diabetes — pioglitazone — also slows down artery wall thickening while lowering cholesterol as well. These findings are especially significant for individuals who suffer from both diabetes and cardiovascular conditions.

The study, which is being published in a December issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at the drug’s potential benefits in heart health by studying 462 adults living with Type 2 diabetes between the years 2003 and 2006.

The study is significant to this demographic, as people with diabetes can’t create enough insulin and therefore tend to be at a greater risk of experiencing a heart attack. This is why prevention — specifically via newer, more improved treatments — is so beneficial.

In the study, the participants were, on average, 60 years old, where 289 men and 173 women were involved. The participants were randomly divided into two groups, where one group received pioglitazone (15 to 45 milligrams) or another diabetes drug that functions in a different way yet also treats insulin sensitivity, glimepiride (one to four milligrams). Both groups took the medications on a daily basis.

Looking specifically at the thickness of arteries, the researchers evaluated both groups at the 24-, 48-, and 72- week marks. Using an ultrasound machine, they measured the thickness of the carotid arteries, specifically looking at the middle layers. (The carotid arteries are in the neck; they carry blood to the brain.) The researchers also looked at blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and adverse events in the participants as well.

Since other studies have pointed out that thickened arteries lead to a higher risk of experiencing an adverse heart event, the findings on the drug pioglitazone are interesting to note: At the 72-week mark, the participants taking the glimepiride saw an increase of .012 millimeters in their carotid arteries, whereas the pioglitazone group experienced a .001 decrease.

That’s right: the pioglitazone group experienced a slight reversal of the condition. Plus, the pioglitazone group also saw their LDL or “good” cholesterol levels increase between the 24- and 72-week mark, compared to the glimepiride group. Blood pressure changes were not significant in either groups during the course of the study.

According to the head researchers in the study, “A pre- specified subgroup analysis based on age, sex, systolic blood pressure, duration of Type 2 diabetes mellitus, body mass index, HbA1c value and statin use showed a uniform beneficial effect of pioglitazone treatment.”

According to the researchers, more study is needed into the link between pioglitazone and the decrease of artery thickness and increase of LDL cholesterol levels, but the possibility is there that pioglitazone could hold a benefit for diabetics who also suffer from thickened arteries. If the drug can help stave off major cardiovascular events in these individuals is still to be seen. We’ll keep you posted on any new developments in this area as they come to light.