Lowering cholesterol levels could help the body's immune system fight infections, British scientists said.
A study in mice by researchers at the University of Edinburgh found a direct link between the workings of the immune system and cholesterol levels.
"What we have discovered is that a key immune hormone stimulated upon infection can lower cholesterol levels and thereby deprive viral infections of the sustenance they need to grow," said Edinburgh's Peter Ghazal, whose study was published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology journal.
"Drugs currently exist to lower cholesterol levels, but the next step would be to see if such drugs would also work to help bolster our immune systems," he said.
Medicines called statins, such as Pfizer's Lipitor, AstraZeneca's Crestor, and a generic called simvastatin, are widely prescribed to lower "bad" or LDL cholesterol -- a risk factor for heart disease -- and are credited with being among the most successful drugs in helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
In a telephone interview, Ghazal said many years of research work lay ahead before these findings could be translated into human treatments, but he thought statin-like drugs could in future be developed to have potent anti-infective effects as well as being able to reduce levels of bad cholesterol.
Currently, antiviral drugs are used to fight viral infections by targeting the machinery that enables viruses to multiply. Antibiotics are used to fight bacterial infections, but bugs are able to mutate and develop new strains that are drug-resistant, prompting the need for new and more powerful medicines to be developed all the time.
Ghazal said his research team hoped to use the studies to find news ways of combating infections, which could for example involve mimicking immune signals sent out to lower the production of cholesterol.
Such treatments would help overcome the problems of drug resistance, Ghazal said, since they would aim to enhance the way the body responds to an infection, instead of focusing on attacking the bug itself.