Very Low LDL May Mean More Cancer Risk
Risk Found in People Taking Statin Drugs; More Study Needed, Researchers Say
(Editor's note: In August 2008, the researchers announced that a more complete analysis of the data showed no link between statins and cancer risk.)
July 23, 2007 -- New research suggests a link between very low cholesterol levels and an increased risk of cancer, but the findings are far from conclusive, researchers say.
The analysis of studies examining outcomes in patients taking cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins to lower their low density lipoprotein (LDL) "bad" cholesterol found an elevated risk of cancer among those who achieved the very lowest LDL cholesterol levels while taking the drugs.
The findings do not directly implicate statins in increasing cancer risk, but they do raise important questions, which need to be answered in future clinical trials, researcher Richard H. Karas, MD, of Boston’s Tufts-New England Medical Center, tells WebMD.
Statins like Lipitor, Pravachol, Crestor, and Zocor lower LDL levels by blocking a key enzyme in the liver responsible for making cholesterol.
“Our findings should not be seen as a reason to change clinical practice,” Karas says. “No one who needs these drugs should stop taking them based on these findings.”
Is Lower Always Better?
Millions of American take statins to lower their risk of heart attack and stroke, and in recent years an increasing number have been placed on high doses of the drugs to achieve lower LDL levels.
The “lower is better” strategy for controlling LDL has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk, especially in very high-risk heart patients. But questions remain about the long-term safety of high-dose statin use.
Karas and colleagues did not have cancer in mind when they set out to examine the safety of the strategy. They were more focused on two more widely suspected side effects of statins -- muscle damage and elevated liver enzymes.
They found no link between very low LDL levels and either of these side effects, but a clear association was seen between statin use in high doses and liver abnormalities.
“There was an important and significant relationship between the dose of statins given and the risk of liver toxicity,” Karas says. “I think this paper establishes that point quite strongly.”