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A vaccination to protect against high cholesterol could cut the risk of heart disease without statins, research suggests.

The first human trials have already started of an injection which protects against dangerously high levels of cholesterol.

Experts hope the vaccine, which is administered once and then followed by an annual booster, could be available on the NHS in as little as six years.

Early tests on mice, conducted at Leiden University in the Netherlands, showed that the vaccine, known as AT04A, cut cholesterol by 53 per cent and reduced damage to blood vessels by 64 per cent.

The company behind the technology hopes to target people who cannot control their cholesterol with statins – a high-risk group including many who have suffered heart attacks, as well as those at lower risk who do not want to take a daily pill or are worried about side effects.

Experts think this could be a more reliable route to reducing cholesterol because people will not have to remember to take their pills every day.

Roughly 6million people in Britain currently take statins to reduce their risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or other form of cardiovascular disease. Another 6million could benefit from the drugs but do not take them.

Oliver Siegel, chief executive of Austrian biotech company AFFiRis, said last night an annual injection could be attractive to patients, especially those already taking many other drugs. He said: "A once-yearly shot, at the same time as an annual check-up, could be an alternative to statins."

His company, which is planning to charge between £1,000 and £2,000 for each injection, is testing the drug on 72 patients at the Medical University of Vienna.

They hope to publish results of that early trial at the beginning of next year.

"Optimistically we could be on the market anywhere between 2023 and 2025," Siegel said. The vaccine works by boosting the way the body naturally clears cholesterol from the blood.

The new results, published in the European Heart Journal, showed that mice fed a fatty diet had their total blood cholesterol lowered by 53 per cent by the vaccine. Research leader Dr Gunther Staffler, chief technology officer at AFFiRis, said: "If these findings translate successfully into humans... we could develop a long-lasting therapy that, after the first vaccination, just needs an annual booster."

British expert Dr Tim Chico, of Sheffield University, said: "This was a well-conducted but very early study... Many questions remain about whether this approach could work in man.

"The theory is sound and I think this might have the potential to replace the need to take regular cholesterol-lowering drugs."

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Finding new ways to manage people's cholesterol levels is absolutely vital

"This vaccine could lead to a simple way to target high cholesterol and ultimately reduce people's risk of heart disease."

© Daily Mail