Monday, September 17, 2012

Familial hypercholesteromia: Why rely on cholesterol levels when more direct measures are available?

There are two forms of familial hypercholesteromia (FH), namely heterozygous and homozygous FH. In heterozygous FH only one copy of the gene that causes it is present, inherited either from the father or the mother. In homozygous FH, which is the most lethal form, two copies of the gene are present. FH is associated with early-onset cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Homozygous FH may happen if both the father and mother have heterozygous or homozygous FH. If both the father and mother have heterozygous FH, the likelihood that at least one in four children will have homozygous FH will be high. If both parents have homozygous FH the likelihood that all children will have homozygous FH will be high.

In fact, in the latter case, homozygous FH in the children is almost certain. One case in which it won’t occur is if the combining FH gene from the father or mother mutates into a non-FH gene before it is used in the assembly of the genome of the child. A gene mutation in a specific locus, only for the father or mother, is an unlikely event, and would lead to heterozygous FH. Two gene mutations at once in the same locus, for the father and mother, is a very unlikely event.

By the way, despite what many are led to believe based on fictional characters in movies and series like the X-Men and Hulk, mutations in functional genes usually lead to harmful traits. In our evolutionary past, those traits would have been largely removed from the gene pool by selection, making them rare or nonexistent in modern humans. Today we have modern medicine; a double-edged sword.

Mutations leading to super-human traits are very, very unlikely. The myostatin gene, for example, suppresses muscle growth. And yet the mutations that lead to little or no secretion of the related myostatin protein are very uncommon. Obviously they have not been favored by selection, even though their holders are very muscular – e.g., Germany’s “Incredible Hulky” ().

Okay, back to FH. Xanthelasmas are relatively common among those who suffer from FH (see photo below, from They are skin deposits of cholesterol, have a genetic basis, and are NOT always associated with FH. This is important – several people have xanthelasmas but not FH.

FH is a fairly rare disease, even in its heterozygous form, with an overall incidence of approximately 0.2 percent. That is, about 1 in 500 people in the general population will have it. Genetically related groups will see a much higher or lower rate of incidence, as the disease is strongly influenced by a genetic mutation. This genetic mutation is apparently in the LDL receptor gene, located on the short arm of chromosome 19.

The table below, from a study by Miltiadous and colleagues (), paints a broad picture of the differences one would typically see between heterozygous FH sufferers and non-FH controls.

The main difference is in total cholesterol and in the relatively large contribution of LDL to total cholesterol. A large difference is also seen in Apolipoprotein B (indicated as "Apo B"), which acts as a LDL transporter (not to be confused with a LDL receptor). The LDL cholesterol shown on the table is calculated through the Friedewald equation, which is notoriously imprecise at low triglyceride levels ().

Looking at the total cholesterol row on the table, and assuming that the numbers after the plus/minus signs are standard deviations, we can conclude that: (a) a little more than two-thirds of the heterozygous FH sufferers had total cholesterol levels falling in between 280 and 446; and (b) a little more than two-thirds of the non-FH controls had total cholesterol levels falling in between 135 and 225.

Keep in mind that about 13.5 percent {calculated as: (95-68)/2} of the non-FH controls had total cholesterol levels between 225 and 270. This is a nontrivial percentage; i.e., these may be a minority but are not rare individuals. Heterozygous FH sufferers are rare, at 0.2 percent of the general population. Moreover, about 2 percent of the non-FH controls had non-pathological total cholesterol levels between 270 and 315. That is not so rare either, amounting to an “incidence” 10 times higher than heterozygous FH.

What would happen if people with heterozygous FH were to replace refined carbohydrates and sugars with saturated fat and cholesterol in their diets? Very likely their already high total cholesterol would go up higher, in part because their HDL cholesterol would go up (). Still, how could they be sure that CVD progression would accelerate if they did that?

According to some studies, the higher HDL cholesterol would either be generally protective or associated with protective factors, even among those with FH (). One of those protective factors may be a more nutrient-dense diet, as many foods rich in cholesterol are very nutrient-dense – e.g., eggs, organ meats, and seafood.

This brings me to my main point in this post. It is mainstream practice to diagnose people with FH based on total and/or LDL cholesterol levels. But the main problem with FH is that it leads to early onset of CVD, which can be measured more directly through simple tests, such as intima-media thickness and related ultrasound plaque tests (). These are noninvasive tests, done in 5 minutes or so, and often covered by insurance.

Even if simple direct tests are not perfect, it seems utterly nonsensical to rely on cholesterol measures to diagnose and treat FH, given the possible overlap between pathological and non-pathological high total cholesterol levels.