Genetic scientists have pinpointed a specific compound found in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids — the same healthy fats found in many vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds — that can help lower the levels of LDL cholesterol, otherwise known as bad cholesterol.

Prior to the research, scientists had no explanation for why omega-6 fatty acids were so good at lowering heart disease risk and preserving bone health. The new study, published in the journal Cell, highlights the specific mechanism by which a person’s genes regulate levels of a compound known as lipoxins. The findings could one day lead to specially tailored drugs to lower patients’ cholesterol.

Homing in on one gene in particular, drawn from data on 100,000 subjects, the research team found the same compounds kept popping up. They’re called lipoxins. Among other things, lipoxins help promote healthy immune-related function and anti-inflammatory effects. When omega-6 acids are present, the targeted gene produces these lipoxins to boost the acids’ benefits.

“Our findings could help pave the way for novel therapeutic approaches to prevent cardiovascular disease and its associated clinical sequelae,” said senior author Dr. Ivan Tancevski, of the Innsbruck Medical University, in a statement. Sequelae are the conditions that happen as a result of previous injury or ailment. Neck pain, for example, is a common sequela of whiplash.

Interestingly, in studying the gene pathway, the team found ordinary aspirin makes use of the same mechanism. Past its remedying effect on headaches, aspirin has been used for years as a simple and effective way to reduce heart attack and stroke risks.

In the latest tests on mice, aspirin stimulated production of lipoxins that helped move excess cholesterol to the liver, where it got removed through bile. It also cleared away plaques that had built up in the mice’s blood vessels. “Aspirin is known to prevent cardiovascular disease due to its antithrombotic and anti-inflammatory effects,” said Tancevski. “We now identified a third mechanism by which aspirin may confer protection.”

The research holds the potential to make big leaps forward mostly because it offers a replacement to statins, currently the standard for lowering cholesterol levels. While highly effective when they work, statins can be spotty. “There is still plenty of heart disease out there even among people who take statins,” said Godfrey Getz, an experimental pathologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, to Science Mag.

Other research into removing the same artery-clogging plaques found in mice suggests a future where oral medication, as opposed to injections, could help mimic people’s good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol in the process. In one trial, 10 weeks of regular dosing showed the number of artery-clogging lesions had been cut in half.

In a country where more than a third of the population has high cholesterol, diet alone is unlikely to solve the problem; although, when paired with occasional exercise, it still remains the ideal option. This is especially true given the fact less than half of adults with high cholesterol do anything about it and even fewer have it under control.

Source: Demetz E, Schroll A, Auer K, et al. The Arachidonic Acid Metabolome Serves as a Conserved Regulator of Cholesterol Metabolism. Cell. 2014.