Sometimes small LDL is the only abnormality

Janet is a 58-year old schoolteacher. At 5 ft 3 inches and 104 lbs, she had barely an ounce of fat on her size-2 body. For years, Janet's primary care physician complimented her on her cholesterol numbers: LDL cholesterol values ranging from 100 to 130 mg/dl; HDL cholesterol of 50-53 mg/dl.

Yet she had coronary disease. Her heart scan score: 195.

Lipoprotein analysis uncovered a single cause: small LDL. 95% of all of Janet's LDL particles were in the small category. What was surprising was that this pattern occurred despite her slender build. Weight is a powerful influence on the small LDL pattern and the majority of people with it are overweight to some degree. But not Janet.

How did she get small LDL if she was already at or below her ideal weight? Genetics. Among the genetic patterns that can account for this pattern is a defect of an enzyme called cholesteryl-ester transfer protein, or CETP. This is the exact step, by the way, that is blocked by torcetrapib, the new agent slated for release sometime in future (The manufacturer, Pfizer, is apparently going to sell this agent only packaged in the same tablet as Lipitor. This has triggered an enormous amount of criticism against the company and they are, as a result discussing marketing torcetrapib separately.)

Also note that Janet had a severe excess of small LDL despite an HDL in the "favorable" range. (See my earlier conversation on this issue, The Myth of Small LDL at

With Janet, weight loss to reduce small LDL was not an option. So we advised her to take fish oil, 4000 mg per day; niacin, 1000 mg per day; vitamin D, 2000 units per day; use abundant oat bran and raw almonds, both of which suppress small LDL. This regimen has--surprisingly--only partially suppressed her small LDL pattern by a repeat lipoprotein analysis we just performed. We're hoping this may do it, i.e., stop progression or reduce her heart scan score.

The lesson: Small LDL is a very potent pattern that can be responsible for heart disease, even if it occurs in isolation. And, contrary to conventional thinking, small LDL can occur as an independent abnormality, even when HDL is at favorable levels.