GENEVA - It is being billed as a revolutionary pill, and will soon be available in pharmacies in the United States. Its backers recommend it to every single person over the age of 50.
Releasing a pill as a way to help prevent heart disease to anyone of middle age and older -- whether or note they have symptoms -- is the idea of Professor Nicholas Wald of the London-based Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine.
His “Polypill” might very well land on the US market early in 2013, according to an article last fall by Dr. Gérard Waeber, a prominent Swiss physician.
The Polypill, as its name implies, is a mix of different substances. Some of the medicines are new, others have long been available. Though the formula isn’t final yet, it is expected to contain beta-blockers to slow the heart rate, an antiplatelet agent to increase blood flow and an anti-cholesterol agent. Think of the Polypill as some sort of pharmaceutical “three-in-one” shampoo.
Aging, as Professor Wald notes, is the main factor responsible for heart disease. The goal of Wald and his team of researchers is to bring the first Polypill to market that is recommended to absolutely everyone over 55. The pill is touted as having been able to prevent heart attacks in 28% of the population for a decade.
Even if half of the people over 50 took the Polypill, 94,000 heart attacks and strokes would be avoided each year in Great Britain, Wald claimed in 2011 in a press release of London’s Queen Mary University. He also published a research paper In the magazine PlosOne testifying that the Polypill has "enormous potential in terms of prevention.” He suggested that this medicinal cocktail would diminish arterial pressure by 12% and the “bad” cholesterol by 39%, leading to a predictable reduction of the number of heart attacks by 60%.
To grasp the full potential of this Polypill, you need to know that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in countries with a high GDP. Arterial hypertension – one of the first controllable factors of risk -- touches 35% of the population over 50, and this number reaches 45% past 60.
According to cardiology professor Salim Uusuf from McMaster university in Hamilton Canada, the Polypill must be considered “not as a pill but a different approach to prevention.” It is also relatively inexensive: 57 euros per person a year. Composed of generic pill materials, it can be sold in pharmacies.
However, ever since the first tests began in 2000, people have criticized the approach of suggesting medical substances to healthy people. “The inventors of this pharmaceutical concept want a generalization of the Polypill prescriptions that would render the tracing process and medical monitoring obsolete,” says the Swiss physician Waeber.
The economic advantages would include fewer doctor appointments and lower costs for future medical expenses. “From a medical point of view, we have no idea if it’s a good measure or not," adds Waeber. "Before the symptoms kick in, there is a simple way to alter the risks, and that is a better everyday health. After that, customized treatment turns out to be the most satisfying solution.”
The Polypill clearly has not convinced the entire medical community. Some doctors reckon that it would be interesting to distribute several formulas, for different groups of patients, depending on the level of risk they face.
Waeber ultimately sees the risk of a supposed "wonder pill" that could make people less attentive than they would otherwise be about both nutrition and exercise.