Hypercholesterolemia is considered an important risk factor in coronary artery disease. Thus the possibility of controlling de novo synthesis of endogenous cholesterol, which is nearly two-thirds of total body cholesterol, represents an effective way of lowering plasma cholesterol levels. Statins, fungal secondary metabolites, selectively inhibit hydroxymethyl glutaryl-coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase, the first enzyme in cholesterol biosynthesis. The mechanism involved in controlling plasma cholesterol levels is the reversible inhibition of HMG-CoA reductase by statins, related to the structural similarity of the acid form of the statins to HMG-CoA, the natural substrate of the enzymatic reaction. Currently there are five statins in clinical use. Lovastatin and pravastatin (mevastatin derived) are natural statins of fungal origin, while symvastatin is a semi-synthetic lovastatin derivative. Atorvastatin and fluvastatin are fully synthetic statins, derived from mevalonate and pyridine, respectively. In addition to the principal natural statins, several related compounds, monacolins and dihydromonacolins, isolated fungal intermediate metabolites, have also been characterized. All natural statins possess a common polyketide portion, a hydroxy-hexahydro naphthalene ring system, to which different side chains are linked. The biosynthetic pathway involved in statin production, starting from acetate units linked to each other in head-to-tail fashion to form polyketide chains, has been elucidated by both early biogenetic investigations and recent advances in gene studies. Natural statins can be obtained from different genera and species of filamentous fungi. Lovastatin is mainly produced by Aspergillus terreus strains, and mevastatin by Penicillium citrinum. Pravastatin can be obtained by the biotransformation of mevastatin by Streptomyces carbophilus and simvastatin by a semi-synthetic process, involving the chemical modification of the lovastatin side chain. The hypocholesterolemic effect of statins lies in the reduction of the very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) and LDL involved in the translocation of cholesterol, and in the increase in the high-density lipoproteins (HDL), with a subsequent reduction of the LDL- to HDL-cholesterol ratio, the best predictor of atherogenic risk. The use of statins can lead to a reduction in coronary events related to hypercholesterolemia, but the relationship between benefit and risk, and any possible interaction with other drugs, must be taken into account.
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