In epidemiologic cohorts initiated >30 years ago, inflammatory biomarkers, such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) were shown to independently predict future cardiovascular events with a magnitude of effect comparable to that of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDLC). Whether aggressive contemporary therapy for atherosclerosis has altered these relationships is unknown yet has major implications for future drug development.
Interleukin-6, hsCRP, and LDLC were measured at baseline in up to 4168 North American patients enrolled in the contemporary Cardiovascular Inflammation Reduction Trial with prior myocardial infarction or multivessel coronary disease who additionally had diabetes or metabolic syndrome and were followed for a period of up to 5 years for incident major recurrent cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality. Three-quarters of the cohort were previously revascularized and the great majority was taking statins, angiotensin blocking agents, beta-blockers, and antithrombotic agents. Participants were randomly allocated to low-dose methotrexate 15 mg weekly or to placebo. Randomized use of methotrexate had no effect on event rates nor plasma levels of IL-6, hsCRP, or LDL over time. Yet, baseline levels of IL-6, hsCRP, and LDLC were all predictors of major recurrent cardiovascular events; adjusted hazard ratios [HR; 95% confidence interval (CI)] for the lowest to highest baseline quartiles of IL-6 were 1.0 (referent), 1.66 (1.18-2.35), 1.92 (1.36-2.70), and 2.11 (1.49-2.99; P < 0.0001), while adjusted HRs for increasing quartiles of hsCRP were 1.0 (referent), 1.28 (0.92-1.79), 1.73 (1.25-2.38), and 1.79 (1.28-2.50; P < 0.0001) and adjusted HRs for increasing quartiles of LDLC were 1.0 (referent), 1.12 (0.78-1.62), 1.25 (0.87-1.79), and 2.38 (1.72-3.30; P < 0.0001). Effect estimates were not statistically different in these analyses for comparisons between IL-6, hsCRP, or LDLC, although IL-6 was the strongest predictor of all-cause mortality. The highest absolute risks were observed among those with elevated levels of both cholesterol and inflammation [HR 6.4 (95% CI 2.9-14.1) for those in the top quartiles of baseline IL-6 and LDLC, HR 4.9 (95% CI 2.6-9.4) for those in the top quartiles of baseline hsCRP and LDLC, both P < 0.0001].
Despite aggressive contemporary secondary prevention efforts, the relationships between inflammation, cholesterol, and cardiovascular risk are largely unchanged from those described two decades ago. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that future treatments for atherosclerosis may require a combination of inflammation inhibition and additional cholesterol reduction. NCT01594333.

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