Cholesterol in the body serves an important role by producing vitamin D, hormones and other molecules that help in our food digestion. But when the protein known as PCSK9, which dictates its levels in our blood, retains too much of it, arteries begin to clog up and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Researchers have now developed a vaccine that inhibits the activity of this particular protein, which reduces cholesterol levels in animals and suggests a cheap and effective way to prevent dangerously high levels in humans mightn't be so far away.

A common approach to keeping cholesterol in check (outside of regular diet and exercise) has centered on statins, a class of drugs that reduce the concentration of "bad" cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), in the blood. Research has indicated that it is effective in cutting the chances of cardiovascular disease, with one study even suggesting fast food outlets provide free statins to customers to cancel out the health risks posed by burgers and fries.

Millions of Americans take statins to lower cholesterol, but one of its major drawbacks is its list of side effects, which includes muscle pain, heightened diabetes risk and even cognitive loss. Pharmaceutical companies have made progress toward drugs that target PCSK9, with some found to reduce LDL-C levels by as much as 60 percent receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The trouble is, these drugs don't come cheap, carrying a price tag of more than US$10,000 a year.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and the National Institute of Health say they have now developed a vaccine that offers a cheaper alternative and is even more effective than alternative treatments. It too targets PCSK9, and involves a virus-like particle that carries an antigenic PCKSK9 peptide. In testing the vaccine on mice and monkeys, the scientists found it led to significant reduction in total cholesterol, free cholesterol, phospholipids, and triglycerides.

"We believe that this vaccine could lead to a widely applicable approach for controlling hypercholesteremia and cardiovascular disease," says Bryce Chackerian, professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at UNM.

The vaccine is patent-pending, with the researchers now looking to continue studying its effects in monkeys and find commercial partners to further advance the technology.

The research was published in the journal Vaccine.