To determine the acute and long-term effects of low density lipoprotein (LDL) reduction on cholesterol biosynthesis, we studied changes in the cholesterol precursors mevalonic acid (MVA) and lathosterol in patients with heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia undergoing LDL-apheresis. Long-term LDL-apheresis in eight patients resulted in slight but insignificant increases in plasma MVA levels and lathosterol/cholesterol (L/C) ratios over 18 months. In short-term studies, six patients not on drugs and six patients treated with lovastatin or pravastatin had blood taken immediately before and after LDL-apheresis, and afterwards on days 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7. Plasma L/C ratios and MVA concentration did not change significantly on the first day after LDL-apheresis in those not on statin therapy (1.11 +/- 0.08 vs. 1.40 +/- 0.18, and 9.2 +/- 1.3 vs. 9.1 +/- 0.6 ng/ml, respectively) but increased in the statin-treated group (from 0.78 +/- 0.09 to 1.55 +/- 0.21, P = 0.003 and from 5.0 +/- 0.7 to 11.0 +/- 1.6 ng/ml, P = 0.008, respectively). There was no clear correlation between the changes in either of these precursors and the extent of reduction of total cholesterol by LDL-apheresis, but there was a strong inverse correlation with the post-apheresis LDL-cholesterol level (r = -0.77, P = 0.002 for L/C ratio; r = -0.75, P = 0.003 for MVA). Post-apheresis changes in L/C ratio and MVA were mutually correlated (r = 0.68. P = 0.01). We conclude that LDL-apheresis stimulates cholesterol biosynthesis transiently despite concomitant therapy with an HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor, the degree of stimulation being inversely related to the level to which the LDL-cholesterol was reduced.