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Blood-cleansing therapy for extremely high cholesterol

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The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) announced on Jan. 29 that it is now using an innovative blood-cleansing therapy to treat patients with extremely high cholesterol. URMC cardiologists are the first physicians in upstate New York to perform this procedure. The four hour long treatment involves running a patient's blood through a filter which removes the dangerous fat and returns the blood to the patient.

The procedure is called apheresis. Highlighted in the announcement is the story of one patient, Bob Guesno, who had already suffered two heart attacks by age 42. He was unable to tolerate the medications used to lower cholesterol and his levels were nearly three times the normal level. He has his blood filtered up to four times each month.

Guesno is diagnosed with familial hypercholesterolemia, an inherited condition where the body produces too much cholesterol. While a great deal of attention has been focused on reducing the amount of cholesterol in the diet, a small number of people have conditions where their body is the culprit for their unhealthy cholesterol levels. For these patients, dietary restrictions are not enough.

Cholesterol is a fat that is found throughout the body, according to the National Institutes of Health. The body needs the substance to make hormones, create Vitamin D and to create substances that help digest food. The human body normally produces all the cholesterol that is needed. Food can be another source. It is carried in the bloodstream in packets consisting of a protein shell over the fat.

There are two types of cholesterol packet in the blood, low density (LDL) and high density (HDL). LDL cholesterol is considered "bad" cholesterol. It builds up on the walls of blood vessels, narrowing and even closing them, and causing angina or a heart attack. Plaque can also break lose and travel in the bloodstream to other locations and create a blockage. In the brain, this may cause a stroke.

Apheresis is a common procedure. The Red Cross uses it to obtain platelets, which allow the blood to clot, from donors. It is also used medically to collect germ-fighting white blood cells and plasma, the fluid portion of blood.

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