CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When it comes to cholesterol, it is a numbers game. Anything above 200 increases your risk of heart disease. Levels of 300, 400 or higher puts you in the danger zone.
A breakthrough therapy aims to help get high cholesterol under control.
The treatment is similar to the procedure used to donate plasma. In less than two hours, bad cholesterol is washed away.
To say high cholesterol and heart disease runs in Peggy Vardeman's family is an understatement. Her grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all had it.
"I've have five angioplasties, a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery," Vardeman said.
Vardeman is one of millions of people with very high cholesterol.
"We're looking at people who have LDLs over 300," said Dr. Ross Simpson, director of the University of North Carolina Lipid Clinic.
Vardeman's level LDL level is 423. Medications usually fail to bring down cholesterol that high. A procedure, called LDL apheresis, literally flushes bad cholesterol from the blood.
During the treatment, blood travels out of one arm and into a machine that filters out the LDL cholesterol. The cleansed blood circulates back into the other arm.
The UNC clinic is the first in the state to use the Liposorber machine.
"So a level of LDL cholesterol, which is the bad cholesterol, goes from about 300 to 60 in just one treatment," he said.
One treatment lasts about two weeks.
Simpson says he is amazed at how well it works.
"I think it's a great procedure. It's wonderful way to help people who can't be helped otherwise," he said.
Nurse practitioner Julie Ruch says it not just about lowering cholesterol.
"We're actually preventing heart attacks. We're hopefully saving their lives," she said.
For Vardeman, the treatment is already a lifesaver. She has normal cholesterol for the first time in her life. Before starting therapy, Vardeman's LDL cholesterol was over 420; after one treatment it dropped to about 60.
"It's like a miracle to me -- to finally see it [lowered] for the first time," she said.
LDL apheresis is also helpful in people who may have moderately high cholesterol levels but cannot tolerate medication.
The procedure is covered by insurance as long as the patient can document that he or she has exhausted all other forms of treatment.