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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: January 2018

4 - The Statins: Cholesterol's “Penicillins”


Does a microbiologist working on fungi who discovers a new class of drugs that had a global impact sound familiar? Would a Scottish researcher by the name of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of the penicillins and their development in the 1930s and 1940s be the first thing that comes to mind? Well, it should be but that is not the answer here. Instead, it is the Japanese researcher Akira Endo and the discovery of another class of fungal compounds, the statins, and their development in the 1970s and 1980s. Stated plainly, the discovery of the statins and the new insights into cardiovascular disease (CVD) that have come from their implementation represents one of the most significant accomplishments of the biomedical sciences in the twentieth century.


CVD is the leading cause of death and disability in the developed world. As of 2010, the American Heart Association estimated that more than 80 million Americans have one or more forms of CVD. The stark reality is that more than 2,150 of us die of CVD each and every day and that once every 40 seconds someone in the Unites States has a terminal cardiovascular event. It may come as a surprise but CVD is the number one worldwide killer of women – a woman is 10 times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer, the number one women's health news item (admittedly with good reason).

The socioeconomic burden this represents is huge. More than 7.6 million CVD operations and procedures were performed in the United States in 2010, of which an estimated 3.6 million were performed on men and 2.6 million on women. The total direct and indirect costs for the American economy, inclusive of procedures, physicians and other health care professionals, prescribed medications and devices, home health care, and lost productivity in the same year is estimated at $315.4 billion.

Daunting as these statistics are, the number of deaths in this part of the world has been on the decrease since the 1980s and is continuing to fall.

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