Anti-cholesterol drugs may prevent cancer deaths

In collaboration with the Press Association

Statins - a type of drug taken by millions in the UK to lower their cholesterol levels - may have an impact on cancer death rates, according to a new Danish study.

Taking statins appeared to reduce the mortality rate among Danish cancer patients by 15 per cent, according to the research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Over up to 15 years follow-up, there were 467 cancer deaths among every 1,000 patients taking statins, compared to 553 among every 1,000 patients who weren't taking them.

While the latest results appear positive, researchers have stressed that a randomised clinical trial needs to be carried out to confirm the benefits suggested by this study, while the journal's editorial urged caution over the results, pointing out that the researchers were unable to account for factors like smoking rates. 

Cholesterol is an essential building block in all cell membranes - the wall between the cell and its outside environment - but is used by cancer cells for growth.

Statins, which lower cholesterol levels, are one of the most widely used drugs in cardiovascular disease, and have relatively few side effects.

As a result, researchers have asked whether taking statins might somehow be beneficial in the management of cancer as well as cardiovascular disease.

Professor Michael Seckl, based at Imperial College London, is running a clinical trial that will assess the benefits of statins for patients with small-cell carcinoma (SCLS), a type of lung cancer.

The LungStar trial, supported by Cancer Research UK and which has now finished recruiting patients, will follow around 1,300 people with SCLS from around the UK, half of whom will be given a drug called pravastatin alongside chemotherapy.

Speaking about the Danish research, Professor Seckl said it was an "extremely interesting" study, which his team would be analysing in great detail in the immediate future.

"On the face of it, it provides further support for ongoing trials like LungStar, which we're co-ordinating.

"But, as the authors say, their results need such trials to fully confirm whether statins can help treat people with cancer."

Denmark has a national network of databases, enabling researchers to track and link all deaths, cancer diagnoses, and medications between 1995 and the present day.

Using these databases, the researchers were able to find approximately 18,000 cancer patients out of 300,000 registered, who took statins during the course of their treatment. They used the database to follow what happened to them in subsequent years, and compared this to those who did not take the drugs.

Further research is needed into the precise mechanism by which statins reduce mortality rates, which could help develop a new range of anti-cancer drugs, the Danish research team said.

Copyright Press Association 2012

References

  • Nielsen S.F., Nordestgaard B.G. & Bojesen S.E. (2012). Statin Use and Reduced Cancer-Related Mortality, New England Journal of Medicine, 367 (19) 1792-1802. DOI: