Nov. 7, 2012 -- Statins -- widely prescribed drugs used to help prevent death from heart disease -- may play a role in reducing risk for cancer death, too, a new study shows.
Researchers followed all cancer patients in Denmark diagnosed between 1995 and 2007. They found that those who took cholesterol-lowering statins before they were diagnosed were less likely to die from their disease than patients who did not take the drugs.
The study does not prove that statins have a direct impact on cancer survival. But Eric J. Jacobs, PhD, of the American Cancer Society, called the findings "intriguing and exciting" and worthy of further research.
But he says that "they do not mean that people with cancer should start using statins in the hopes of improving their prognosis."
He points out that a large number of studies that establish the role of statins in preventing heart attack and stroke have not shown the drugs to reduce cancer deaths.
"Additional research will be needed to clarify if and how statins might influence survival in cancer patients," he says.
The new study appears in the Nov. 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers used a national health database to track statin use among the Danish population. The study included close to 300,000 adults aged 40 or older. They had been diagnosed with cancer between 1995 and 2007. Researchers followed them until the end of 2009.
When the researchers examined deaths from all cancers, they found that patients with a history of statin use had a 15% lower risk of dying than those who had not used the drugs.
Researcher Sune F. Nielsen, PhD, says there are several possible mechanisms by which statins improve cancer survival.
He says that some studies suggest that cancer cells need cholesterol to grow. And a lack of cholesterol has been shown to inhibit tumor growth.
"It is not so far-fetched to imagine that taking a cholesterol-reducing drug can slow the progression of cancer," Nielsen says.
Almost 19,000 participants in the Danish study took statins before their cancers were diagnosed. But the study did not address whether statins can prevent cancers from occurring.
The study had some limitations, including missing information for many patients about cancer treatment details, tumor size, and cancer spread.
Jacobs says there is little evidence from previous studies that statin use has important effects, "either good or bad," on overall cancer risk.
Neil E. Caporaso, MD, of the National Cancer Institute, wrote an editorial published with the study. He says important questions need to be answered before the studies needed to verify the findings can be conducted.
"But if statins do influence cancer survival it is certainly worth verifying because this could impact millions of cancer patients," he says.