A combination of cholesterol-lowering drugs and a low-fat diet can open clogged arteries in some men with heart disease and allow them to avoid surgery, researchers said.

The "surprising" results of a 32-month study found that men given intensive drug therapy had half as much disease progression and three times more reversal of blocked arteries than those given dummy drugs, said Dr. Greg Brown of the University of Washington.Brown said 74 men in two drug therapy groups had 73 percent fewer heart attacks or other symptoms such as angina than 46 men in a comparison group. During the study, all of the participants ate a diet that limited fats to 30 percent of total calories.

"I was quite surprised by the amount of disease regression we saw," said Brown, noting that researchers initially expected that the drugs would at best halt the progress of heart disease.

However, in findings reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, Brown and colleagues said 35 percent of the men who were given some combination of the drugs lovastatin, colestipol and niacin had decreases in the amounts of fatty substances known as plaque that clog arteries and make it more difficult for blood to pass through. In addition, the men experienced significant drops in their total cholesterol levels, the study found.