Lipoprotein(a), or just Lp(a) to its close friends and neighbors, is among the most underappreciated and neglected of causes of coronary plaque. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of lipoproteins.
Lp(a) rarely gets diagnosed before people come to my office. They've often been through the ringer: doctors have thrown their hands up in frustration because of poor response to "standard" treatment (AKA statin drugs); the patient doesn't understand why they might be thin and active yet have the high blood pressure of someone 70 lbs heavier; they have heart disease despite wonderful cholesterol values.
One blood test and the answer becomes clear: They have Lp(a). It explains all these phenomena.
They why don't more physicians order this simple test? Why don't we hear more about this prevalent (1 in 5 people with coronary plaque have it) genetic pattern that accelerates risk for heart disease?
There are a number of reasons. But I believe the most powerful reason is simply that there is no big revenue-generating drug to treat it. Statins reduce LDL cholesterol to the tune of $27 billion dollars a year (2007 revenue). There's no such blockbuster for Lp(a). Of course, Niaspan represents the relatively anemic attempt to commercialize a pharmaceutical treatment for Lp(a), but side-effects and the lack of FDA trials for the Lp(a)-reducing indication have stalled its commercial success. (Efforts to block the flush with various products, by the way, may re-invigorate niacin as a pharmaceutical agent. The drug companies smell money here.)
Another reason for Lp(a)'s unpopularity: Though there are mounds of data that document--without question--that Lp(a) is an important risk for coronary disease and other forms of atherosclerotic disease, we lack treatment trials. For instance, niacin vs. placebo for 5 years, then count the number of heart attacks and deaths. We have numerous, repetitive, overlapping, redundant trials with statins adhering to this design. We have none for niacin and the treatment of Lp(a).
Niacin is also a pain in the neck for your doctor. He/she rapidly tires of the calls about the crazy and disconcerting flushing with niacin. Most are unaware that proper hydration reduces or eliminates the flush for the majority of people. It takes too much time and energy to educate people. (By the way, prescription Niaspan makes no mention of purposeful hydration. They only suggest the nonsensical "Take with a low-fat snack," i.e., snacks that actually counter the therpaeutic effects of niacin. What they should be saying is "take with a high-fat snack" like raw almonds, foods that facilatate the benefits of niacin.)
Should someone concoct a successful pharmaceutical treatment for Lp(a), it will make the news, headlines in health magazines and health sections of the newspaper will blare about how important Lp(a) is. Yet it has been there all along, frustrating people and their physicians.
In the Track Your Plaque experience, Lp(a) clearly 1) correlates with heart scan scores, 2) correlates with progression of heart scan scores without treatment, and 3) poses special challenges for treatment. Interestingly, some of our biggest failures have been with Lp(a), as well as some of our biggest successes. (Our current record holder for the largest percentage reduction in heart scan score has Lp(a).)
If you have coronary plaque, or if there is family risk of heart disease, then Lp(a), in my view, is an absolutely essential factor to test for. Yes, treatment poses challenges. But once you know who your enemy is, then you can focus your efforts on it. Not knowing whether or not you have it leaves your efforts unfocused and generally flawed.