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The Hunt For Raising HDL: The Good Cholesterol

Sean Davidson, PhD, UC professor, looks at a model of HDL cholesterol. He likens it to a basketball.
Ann Thompson
Sean Davidson, PhD, UC professor, looks at a model of HDL cholesterol. He likens it to a basketball.

The University of Cincinnati's Sean Davidson and a team of researchers from around the U.S. and Australia have discovered how HDL (high-density lipoproteins), the so-called "good" cholesterol, is generated. That could lead to the development of new drugs.

Davidson has a PhD and is a professor and vice chair in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He initiated the research team to find the basic building block for how HDL is generated. It's something scientists have been trying to determine for 30 years.

"I always use the Indian parable of the blind men looking at the elephant and didn't know exactly what we were looking at," he says. "Well, we got everyone together and decided to describe the whole elephant."

The team did come to agreement on a predictive model. According to Davidson, scientists now know what the major protein in HDL looks like before and after it becomes HDL. They are now trying to understand how it goes through that process.

Drug companies have been heavily investing in the effort to raise HDL but Davidson says they haven’t been extremely successful because they might be increasing the wrong types of HDL. They're already successful at lowering the bad kind of cholesterol, LDL. Scientists understand the metabolism of LDL and that spurred the development of a class of drugs called statins to reduce it.

Davidson says he's excited to finally have a robust picture of what this protein looks like. He and the others had been chipping way at the edges of this problem for decades saying the protein doesn't respond to the typical methods used to model other protein structures. This breakthrough took more than a year of intense cooperation.

Their research here and here is published in the online journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

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With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.