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Gupta: People 'pretty excited' about Polypill

Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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(CNN) -- British researchers say a four-part pill containing aspirin, folic acid and other drugs could cut heart attacks and strokes by more than 80 percent.

Professors Nicholas Wald of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine in London, England, and Malcolm Law of the University of Auckland in New Zealand set out to find a combination of drugs and vitamins that could help prevent cardiovascular disease with few side effects.

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta joined anchor Miles O'Brien to discuss the findings of the study and the proposed Polypill.

O'BRIEN: Can one pill cure many ills? Researchers in Britain say the so-called Polypill could reduce the incidents of heart attacks and stroke by more than 80 percent. Details now from Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

How does this thing work, Sanjay?

GUPTA: First of all, it's probably better to call it a prevent-all as opposed to a cure-all, because it's a purely preventative type of medication. Also, it's purely theoretical at this point. This pill does not exist right now.

But let's talk about this thing -- it's pretty interesting new research. It's all predicated on the fact that heart disease is such a big killer, heart disease and stroke. In fact, if you look at the data for men and women -- men and women -- heart disease and stroke are bigger killers than cancer, infectious diseases, trauma, depression, all of these things combined, usually by the time you're around 50 years old. That's why they got this notion that perhaps taking one pill to try to prevent these diseases might be a good thing. [That is] the Polypill, as everyone is calling it now.

Let's take a look at what the Polypill is actually made of. [It is] really six different ingredients -- a cholesterol-lowering statin medication, which are very, very popular medications nowadays. There are three blood pressure-lowering drugs, they are all half dose, folic acid and aspirin. And as you correctly said, Miles, the possible benefits of this medication [are] in the trials the researchers are putting out there: decreasing heart attack by 88 percent and stroke by 80 percent. [These are] very large trials, Miles -- 750 trials involving 400,000 patients -- not with a particular pill itself, because that doesn't exist, but with all of the ingredients of the pill.

We talked to researchers who actually put this study together. This is what they had to say about the trials thus far. Take a look at the quote -- "One-third of people taking this pill from age 55" -- and that is the magic age that they're looking at where people would start taking this -- "would benefit, gaining on average about 11 years of life ... ."

We wanted to get the American Heart Association to weigh in on this, so we called them. This is what Dr. Richard Stein from the American Heart Association had to say:

STEIN: I think it would work in terms of providing some core medications that would clearly lower risks of second heart events in people who have heart disease and strokes, or for selected patients that have elevated risks of heart disease. The combination is logical.

GUPTA: You know, he's obviously hedging a little bit there, Miles.

The question that comes up, what about the side effects of putting all of these pills together? There are side effects. You're talking about statin medications for cholesterols. That can cause heart disease. These blood pressure medications may cause fatigue, dizziness; people may not feel right on them. The aspirin might have problems with stomach bleeding, things like that.

But again, take a look at what they really expect the pill to do in terms of lowering cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, lowering what's called serum homocystine, that is another risk factor for heart disease, and platelet function. People are pretty excited about this, because it might do all of these things.

O'BRIEN: All right, how soon might it be available, Sanjay? Is it going to be a while?

GUPTA: It's probably going to be a few years still. The pharmacology industries say [there is] not a lot of drug interaction. So it might happen pretty quickly, but still [it might be] a couple of years before they [go to] trial and get it out there.

O'BRIEN: All right, now, Sanjay, I've got to ask about this study. And this is not meant to cast any aspersions towards you in any way, but there is a study that says only half the time that people get the appropriate amount of health care. You want to weigh in on that one?

GUPTA: This is an interesting study. It's out of The New England Journal of Medicine. And I looked at that study. First of all, I think it's abysmal in some ways, the level of health care in this country. ... What the study says [is] about 50 percent of people [are] not getting the recommended health care. In part, the problem lies with doctors, and in part it lies with the patients not being compliant with the medications and recommendations.

But [it is] sort of an interesting thing. There's definitely a problem here, and it's been a problem for quite some time. The insurance companies oftentimes take a little bit of the blame, because they're not approving a lot of the tests that patients need nowadays in order to have a good level of health.

I'll give you an example -- an annual physical exam typically takes about 20 to 30 minutes in a doctor's office. If all of those guidelines were actually met, it would take up to two hours to do these sorts of tests. So, obviously it's a bit of a problem on both ends. But yes, people not getting the recommended health care, only 50 percent of the time -- that's a problem.

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