Statins: Game Changers in CVD

In a recent post we had discussed the use of aspirin in the setting of an acute MI. Our second look at landmark trials examining the treatment of coronary vascular disease (CVD) focuses on primary prevention of CVD. Elevated cholesterol levels have long been implicated in the progression of CVD, and numerous medications have been developed to reduce plasma cholesterol levels as a means to reduce the incidence of myocardial infarctions and other cardiovascular events. In fact, the Lipid Research Clinics Coronary Primary Prevention Trial (LRC-CPPT) revealed that the CVD risk reduction was proportional to the reduction in LDL cholesterol. Through the 1980s, fibrates and bile acid resins (cholestyramine) were in use, and studies from multiple institutions had demonstrated their ability to moderately reduce cholesterol levels. Used alone, neither cholestyramine nor the fibrates could achieve greater than a 10-15% reduction in LDL. The most promising development was the approval of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, otherwise known as statins. Several smaller studies suggested an improvement in plasma cholesterol levels and cardiovascular outcomes with statin therapy. The Scandinavian Simvastatin Survival Study (4S) assessed the effect of simvastatin on total mortality and cardiovascular outcomes and confidently addressed the question.

Between 1988 and 1994, 4444 patients between the ages of 35 and 70 were randomly assigned to receive various doses of simvastatin or placebo. Dosing was titrated to a specific serum cholesterol value; patients who were above this value received up to 40mg per day, and those below this value were titrated down. The study group was followed for an average of 5.4 years. The primary endpoint for 4S was total mortality – an important distinction since a few research trials with fibrates, including one from the WHO, had shown an increase in non-cardiovascular deaths. Randomization was successful in evenly dividing patients already on multiple medications for hypertension, angina and diabetes. A similar study conducted at the same time in Scotland, the WOSCOP study, was looking at the effect of pravastatin on primary prevention. While 4S was not as straightforward as WOSCOPS, it was far more generalizable in a number of ways. For one, it included women. Other aspects of the study that stand out are the broader age range, existing CVD or diabetes and a percentage of smokers closer to that of the US.

The data from 4S were impressive. Patients on simvastatin on average saw a 35% decrease in LDL cholesterol. More importantly, this decrease correlated with a relative risk of death of 0.70 when compared to placebo (182 vs 256 deaths). This reduction in deaths was attributable to a 42% decrease in cardiovascular mortality. Likewise, simvastatin also lead to a pronounced decrease in non-fatal cardiovascular events (RR 0.66). Adverse effects were few – 1 episode of rhabdomyolysis in the simvastatin group. Complaints of myalgias and elevations in LFTs were similar between placebo and simvastatin.

Prior to this study, the benefits of lipid-lowering therapy lacked a consensus. The 4S trial conclusively determined that statin therapy was a safe and more effective treatment choice in lowering serum LDL cholesterol than other lipid-lowering agents. Moreover, it provided the largest reduction in cardiovascular mortalities, and the benefit was witnessed in all age groups. Today many newer variations of statins exist but simvastatin continues to be the first line therapy for many of our patients.


The Scandinavian Simvastatin Survival Study Group. Randomized trial of cholesterol lowering in 4444 patients with coronary heart disease: the Scandinavian Simvastatin Survival Study (4S). Lancet. 1994. 344:1383-1389.