Decreasing cocaine use leads to regression of coronary artery disease

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January 12, 2016 – People who use cocaine regularly are at high risk of coronary artery disease. A study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the official journal of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), reports that stopping or reducing cocaine use can potentially reverse the process of coronary atherosclerosis. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

In particular, reducing cocaine use leads to regression of unstable, noncalcified coronary plaques–the type most likely to cause a heart attack or stroke, according to the new research by Dr. Shenghan Lai of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, and colleagues. "In the past, there has been excellent work to uncover the consequences of drug use," Dr. Lai comments. "However, few studies have revealed what happens after drug use stops. Studies of this kind give people hope for a healthier life after stopping drug use."

Reducing Cocaine Use Leads to Improvement in Coronary Disease

Since 2000, the researchers have been studying the development of coronary atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries") in more than 700 African-American patients with cocaine use. Previous studies have found that a cash incentive program helps patients to stop using cocaine, or to use it less often. In addition, reducing cocaine use led to decreased levels of endothelin-1 (ET-1)–an inflammation-promoting protein that plays a key role in the development of coronary artery disease.

Could the drop in ET-1 lead to reductions in cocaine-induced coronary artery disease? Dr. Lai and colleagues performed a follow-up study in 15 patients with cocaine use for an average of 20 years and atherosclerosis causing more than 50 percent blockage of the coronary arteries. Using imaging scans (CT angiography), the researchers assessed the amount and types of coronary plaques, before and after reductions in cocaine use.

As previously reported, the incentive program helped participants reduce their cocaine use: from every day before the program to an average of 50 days during one year of follow-up. Levels of ET-1 and other markers of inflammation decreased as well.

Decreased cocaine use was followed by regression of atherosclerotic plaques in the coronary arteries. The reduction was significant not only for total coronary plaques, but also for noncalcified plaques–the first step in the development of coronary atherosclerosis. Noncalcified plaques are considered unstable or "vulnerable." Compared to calcified plaques that develop later, they are more likely to rupture and cause heart attack or stroke.

The reductions in coronary plaque remained significant after adjustment for other cardiovascular risk factors. Coronary artery disease regressed even though the patients were not taking cholesterol-lowering "statin" drugs.

Over the long-term, cocaine use is associated with a high risk of premature atherosclerosis. Cocaine use remains epidemic in the United States–a 2013 report suggested that there are 1.5 million Americans, or about 0.6 percent of the population, who use cocaine.

"This preliminary study demonstrates potentially beneficial effects of cocaine abstinence/reduction on inflammation and coronary plaque phenotype," Dr. Lai and coauthors write. While it is unclear how reduced cocaine use leads to regression of coronary artery disease, "Inflammation appears to be a significant link."

If confirmed by further research, such as a clinical trial, "The findings…may have important implications for the prevention of cocaine-induced coronary artery disease," the researchers conclude. Since many of the participants were also HIV-positive, the study might also be relevant to people with HIV infection, in whom coronary artery disease is prevalent.

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The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Click here to read "Coronary Plaque Progression and Regression in Asymptomatic African American Chronic Cocaine Users With Obstructive Coronary Stenoses: A Preliminary Study."

Article: "Coronary Plaque Progression and Regression in Asymptomatic African American Chronic Cocaine Users With Obstructive Coronary Stenoses: A Preliminary Study" (doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000282)

About Journal of Addiction Medicine

The mission of Journal of Addiction Medicine, the official journal of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, is to promote excellence in the practice of addiction medicine and in clinical research as well as to support addiction medicine as a mainstream medical specialty. Published six times a year, the Journal is designed for all physicians and other mental health professionals who need to keep up-to-date with the treatment of addiction disorders. Under the guidance of an esteemed Editorial Board, peer-reviewed articles published in the Journal focus on developments in addiction medicine as well as on treatment innovations and ethical, economic, forensic, and social topics. Follow Journal of Addiction Medicine on Twitter: @JAM_ASAM

About The American Society of Addiction Medicine

The American Society of Addiction Medicine is a national medical specialty society of more than 4,200 physicians and associated health professionals. Its mission is to increase access to and improve the quality of addiction treatment, to educate physicians, other healthcare providers and the public, to support research and prevention, to promote the appropriate role of the physician in the care of patients with addiction disorders, and to establish addiction medicine as a specialty recognized by professional organizations, governments, physicians, purchasers, and consumers of healthcare services and the general public. ASAM was founded in 1954, and has had a seat in the American Medical Association House of Delegates since 1988. Follow ASAM's official Twitter handle: @ASAMorg

About Wolters Kluwer

Wolters Kluwer is a global leader in professional information services. Professionals in the areas of legal, business, tax, accounting, finance, audit, risk, compliance and healthcare rely on Wolters Kluwer's market leading information-enabled tools and software solutions to manage their business efficiently, deliver results to their clients, and succeed in an ever more dynamic world.

Wolters Kluwer reported 2015 annual revenues of €4.2 billion. The group serves customers in over 180 countries, and employs over 19,000 people worldwide. The company is headquartered in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. Wolters Kluwer shares are listed on Euronext Amsterdam (WKL) and are included in the AEX and Euronext 100 indices. Wolters Kluwer has a sponsored Level 1 American Depositary Receipt program. The ADRs are traded on the over-the-counter market in the U.S. (WTKWY).

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