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LDL Apheresis

LDL apheresis is a nonsurgical therapy that removes low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol from a patient's blood. During LDL apheresis, the plasma portion of the blood, which contains cholesterol, is separated and run through a machine that removes the LDL.

The Apheresis Program at UC San Diego Health System is the only therapeutic LDL apheresis program in San Diego County.

What are Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL)?

LDL are often referred to as "bad cholesterol." LDL circulates through the bloodstream and collects on artery walls, eventually causing plaque and atherosclerosis. High levels of LDL can cause serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disease. Read more about cholesterol at the NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Most people with high cholesterol levels can be treated using a combination of diet, exercise and medications. Some people with severely high cholesterol levels do not respond to medications or have harmful reactions to medications.

What does LDL apheresis treat?

People who have high LDL levels who can't take medication can benefit from LDL apheresis. At UC San Diego Health System, most people treated with LDL apheresis have:

  • A condition called familial hypercholesterolemia
  • An LDL level greater than 200 mg/dL with coronary artery disease
  • An LDL level greater than 300 mg/dL with or without known heart disease.

Anyone aged 14 and older can be treated at UC San Diego Health System’s LDL apheresis program.

What is Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH)?

Familial Hypercholesterolemia is a rare genetic disorder characterized by high levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol. If untreated, 50 percent of FH patients can experience cardiac and vascular illness by the age of 55, or potentially much younger for more severe cases.

How will LDL apheresis help me?

Studies have shown that LDL apheresis can lower LDL cholesterol approximately 70 – 83 percent after a single treatment. The liver will continue to produce LDL following treatment, but it will take approximately two weeks to return to baseline levels. In order to maintain lowest possible LDL levels over time, patients will typically require treatment every 2 weeks. Continuing a heart healthy diet and any cholesterol lowering medications can help increase the time in-between treatments.

Potential side effects

Low blood pressure is the most common adverse reaction associated with LDL apheresis, and in U.S. clinical trials occurred in less than 1 percent of patients. Other uncommon side effects include nausea, flushing, lightheadedness and discomfort at the needle site. Side effects are more common in patients taking ACE inhibitors; please let the apheresis doctor know if you are taking this type of medication.

Download an LDL Apheresis patient handout to learn more or go to Patient Resources.