High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is one of the five major groups of lipoproteins, which, in order of sizes, largest to smallest, are chylomicrons, VLDL, IDL, LDL, and HDL, which enable lipids like cholesterol and triglycerides to be transported within the water-based bloodstream. In healthy individuals, about thirty percent of blood cholesterol is carried by HDL.
Blood tests typically report HDL-C level, i.e. the amount of cholesterol contained in HDL particles. It is often contrasted with low-density or LDL cholesterol or LDL-C. HDL particles are able to remove cholesterol from within artery atheroma and transport it back to the liver for excretion or re-utilization, which is the main reason why the cholesterol carried within HDL particles (HDL-C) is sometimes called "good cholesterol" (despite the fact that it is exactly the same as the cholesterol in LDL particles). Those with higher levels of HDL-C seem to have fewer problems with cardiovascular diseases, while those with low HDL-C cholesterol levels (less than 40 mg/dL or about 1 mmol/L) have increased rates for heart disease. While higher HDL levels are correlated with cardiovascular health, no incremental increase in HDL has been proven to improve health. In other words, while high HDL levels might correlate with better cardiovascular health, specifically increasing one's HDL might not increase cardiovascular health. Additionally, those few individuals producing an abnormal, apparently more efficient, HDL ApoA1 protein variant called ApoA-1 Milano, have low measured HDL-C levels yet very low rates of cardiovascular events even with high blood cholesterol values.
Structure and Function
HDL is the smallest of the lipoprotein particles. They are the densest because they contain the highest proportion of protein to cholesterol. Their most abundant apolipoproteins are apo A-I and apo A-II. The liver synthesizes these lipoproteins as complexes of apolipoproteins and phospholipid, which resemble cholesterol-free flattened spherical lipoprotein particles. They are capable of picking up cholesterol, carried internally, from cells by interaction with the ATP-binding cassette transporter A1 (ABCA1). A plasma enzyme called lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase (LCAT) converts the free cholesterol into cholesteryl ester (a more hydrophobic form of cholesterol), which is then sequestered into the core of the lipoprotein particle, eventually making the newly synthesized HDL spherical. They increase in size as they circulate through the bloodstream and incorporate more cholesterol and phospholipid molecules from cells and other lipoproteins, for example by the interaction with the ABCG1 transporter and the phospholipid transport protein (PLTP).
HDL transports cholesterol mostly to the liver or steroidogenic organs such as adrenals, ovary, and testes by direct and indirect pathways. HDL is removed by HDL receptors such as scavenger receptor BI (SR-BI), which mediate the selective uptake of cholesterol from HDL. In humans, probably the most relevant pathway is the indirect one, which is mediated by cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP). This protein exchanges triglycerides of VLDL against cholesteryl esters of HDL. As the result, VLDLs are processed to LDL, which are removed from the circulation by the LDL receptor pathway. The triglycerides are not stable in HDL, but degraded by hepatic lipase so that finally small HDL particles are left, which restart the uptake of cholesterol from cells.
The cholesterol delivered to the liver is excreted into the bile and, hence, intestine either directly or indirectly after conversion into bile acids. Delivery of HDL cholesterol to adrenals, ovaries, and testes is important for the synthesis of steroid hormones.
Several steps in the metabolism of HDL can contribute to the transport of cholesterol from lipid-laden macrophages of atherosclerotic arteries, termed foam cells, to the liver for secretion into the bile. This pathway has been termed reverse cholesterol transport and is considered as the classical protective function of HDL toward atherosclerosis.
However, HDL carries many lipid and protein species, several of which have very low concentrations but are biologically very active. For example, HDL and their protein and lipid constituents help to inhibit oxidation, inflammation, activation of the endothelium, coagulation, and platelet aggregation. All these properties may contribute to the ability of HDL to protect from atherosclerosis, and it is not yet known what are the most important.
In the stress response, serum amyloid A, which is one of the acute-phase proteins and an apolipoprotein, is under the stimulation of cytokines (IL-1, IL-6), and cortisol produced in the adrenal cortex and carried to the damaged tissue incorporated into HDL particles. At the inflammation site, it attracts and activates leukocytes. In chronic inflammations, its deposition in the tissues manifests itself as amyloidosis.
It has been postulated that the concentration of large HDL particles more accurately reflects protective action, as opposed to the concentration of total HDL particles. This ratio of large HDL to total HDL particles varies widely and is measured only by more sophisticated lipoprotein assays using either electrophoresis (the original method developed in the 1970s) or newer NMR spectroscopy methods (See also: NMR and spectroscopy), developed in the 1990s.
Men tend to have noticeably lower HDL levels, with smaller size and lower cholesterol content, than women. Men also have an increased incidence of atherosclerotic heart disease. Alcohol consumption tends to raise HDL levels, and moderate alcohol consumption is associated with lower cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
Epidemiological studies have shown that high concentrations of HDL (over 60 mg/dL) have protective value against cardiovascular diseases such as ischemic stroke and myocardial infarction. Low concentrations of HDL (below 40 mg/dL for men, below 50 mg/dL for women) increase the risk for atherosclerotic diseases.
Data from the landmark Framingham Heart Study showed that, for a given level of LDL, the risk of heart disease increases 10-fold as the HDL varies from high to low. On the converse, however, for a fixed level of HDL, the risk increases 3-fold as LDL varies from low to high. 
Even people with very low LDL levels are exposed to increased risk if their HDL levels are not high enough.
Estimating HDL via associated cholesterol
Reference ranges for blood tests, comparing HDL cholesterol (in orange at right) to other blood constituents.
Many laboratories used a two-step method: Chemical precipitation of lipoproteins containing apoprotein B, then calculating HDL associated cholesterol as the cholesterol remaining in the supernate, and there are also direct methods. Both methods have long been promoted on the basis of lowest cost, though neither of these measurements directly, or reliably, reflects HDL particle functionality to remove cholesterol from atherosclerotic plaque and can therefore be misleading, especially on an individual patient-by-patient basis Labs use the routine dextran sulfate-Mg2+ precipitation method with ultracentrifugation/dextran sulfate-Mg2+ precipitation as reference method. HPLC can be used.
Subfractions (HDL-2C, HDL-3C) can be measured  and have clinical significance.
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