Subjects with moderate combined hyperlipidemia (n=11) were assessed in an investigation of the effects of atorvastatin and simvastatin (both 40 mg per day) on apolipoprotein B (apoB) metabolism. The objective of the study was to examine the mechanism by which statins lower plasma triglyceride levels. Patients were studied on three occasions, in the basal state, after 8 weeks on atorvastatin or simvastatin and then again on the alternate treatment. Atorvastatin produced significantly greater reductions than simvastatin in low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (49.7 vs. 44.1% decrease on simvastatin) and plasma triglyceride (46.4 vs. 39.4% decrease on simvastatin). ApoB metabolism was followed using a tracer of deuterated leucine. Both drugs stimulated direct catabolism of large very low density lipoprotein (VLDL(1)) apoB (4.52+/-3.06 pools per day on atorvastatin; 5.48+/-4.76 pools per day on simvastatin versus 2.26+/-1.65 pools per day at baseline (both P<0.05)) and this was the basis of the 50% reduction in plasma VLDL(1) concentration; apoB production in this fraction was not significantly altered. On atorvastatin and simvastatin the fractional transfer rates (FTR) of VLDL(1) to VLDL(2) and of VLDL(2) to intermediate density lipoprotein (IDL) were increased significantly, in the latter instance nearly twofold. IDL apoB direct catabolism rose from 0.54+/-0.30 pools per day at baseline to 1.17+/-0.87 pools per day on atorvastatin and to 0.95+/-0.43 pools per day on simvastatin (both P<0.05). Similarly the fractional transfer rate for IDL to LDL conversion was enhanced 58-84% by statin treatment (P<0.01) LDL apoB fractional catabolic rate (FCR) which was low at baseline in these subjects (0.22+/-0.04 pools per day) increased to 0.44+/-0.11 pools per day on atorvastatin and 0.38+/-0.11 pools per day on simvastatin (both P<0.01). ApoB-containing lipoproteins were more triglyceride-rich and contained less free cholesterol and cholesteryl ester on statin therapy. Further, patients on both treatments showed marked decreases in all LDL subfractions. In particular the concentration of small dense LDL (LDL-III) fell 64% on atorvastatin and 45% on simvastatin. We conclude that in patients with moderate combined hyperlipidemia who initially have a low FCR for VLDL and LDL apoB, the principal action of atorvastatin and simvastatin is to stimulate receptor-mediated catabolism across the spectrum of apoB-containing lipoproteins. This leads to a substantial, and approximately equivalent, percentage reduction in plasma triglyceride and LDL cholesterol.