The effects of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase inhibitors on the metabolism of apolipoprotein (apo) B-containing lipoproteins appear to differ according to the predominant lipoprotein profiles present and the condition being treated. In familial hypercholesterolemia, with isolated low density lipoprotein (LDL) elevations, the LDL-apoB elimination rate is increased by up-regulated LDL-receptors. In familial combined hyperlipidemia where very low density lipoprotein (VLDL) and LDL both may be increased and enhanced production of LDL-apoB may be present, HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors seem to diminish increased LDL-apoB production. The drug-induced decreases in LDL-apoB production could be due to decreased production of precursor VLDL-apoB or due to decreased conversion of VLDL-apoB to LDL-apoB after enhanced removal of VLDL by up-regulated LDL-receptors. To distinguish between these possibilities, we assessed the effects of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors in another condition in which there is both apoB overproduction and accumulation of VLDL and LDL in plasma, the nephrotic syndrome. We used endogenous labeling of apoB with [13C]leucine and a multicompartmental model to calculate the metabolic parameters of apoB-containing lipoproteins. Only subjects with focal segmental glomerular sclerosis (FSGS) were included, as FSGS is a chronic, very slowly progressive form of nephrotic syndrome. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover design was used. Treatment periods of 6 weeks were separated by a 2-week washout period. Of the four men studied, three had high triglyceride levels and four had high cholesterol levels. Lovastatin (20 mg/day) significantly decreased cholesterol (27.6 +/- 6%), LDL-cholesterol (27.6 +/- 9%) and plasma apoB (17.9 +/- 2.9%) (P < 0.01 for all). During the placebo period, calculation of kinetic parameters revealed VLDL-, intermediate density lipoprotein (IDL)-, and LDL-apoB overproduction and decreased VLDL-apoB fractional catabolic rate. Lovastatin significantly decreased LDL-apoB production rate in all cases (34.1 +/- 14%, P = 0.03). The decreased LDL-apoB was mainly due to a channelling of LDL precursors away from conversion to LDL (conversion of VLDL to LDL decreased from 80.6 +/- 8.3% to 55.9 +/- 17.2%, P = 0.05). Thus, lovastatin decreased LDL-cholesterol in nephrotic subjects mainly by inhibiting LDL-apoB production from VLDL.