Cholesterol Drugs May Prevent Colon Cancer
Statins Appeared to Cut Risk in Half in Early Study
May 25, 2005 -- The drugs that millions of Americans take to lower their
cholesterol may also lower their risk of colon cancer, according to findings
from an intriguing early study.
Researchers reported that people who took cholesterol-lowering statin drugs
for five years cut their colon cancer risk in half, even when they had a family
history of the disease or other risk factors.
The findings are published in the May 25 issue of The New England
Journal of Medicine.
Although they are approved only for the prevention of heart disease, early
trials suggest that statins such as Crestor, Lipitor, Zocor, and Pravachol
as well as and
But experts say it is too soon to recommend these
or any of these diseases.
"There is just too much that we don't know," Ernest Hawk, MD, MPH,
of the National Cancer Institute, tells WebMD. "We don't know who should
take them [for cancer prevention], what dosage is needed, and how long people
should stay on them. And we don't know anything about the safety of giving
these drugs to people who don't have high cholesterol."
'Window of Opportunity Closing'
Hawk says carefully designed clinical trials are needed to answer these
questions, but time may be running out to do them. As statins are prescribed to
more and more people to lower heart disease risk, the pool of potential study
participants is quickly shrinking.
"The window of opportunity is closing," he says.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Hawk and NCI colleague Jaye L.
Viner, MD, MPH, write that such trials could be invaluable for understanding
seemingly unrelated diseases like heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's and
how to prevent them.
"It is tempting to think that systemically targeting multiple diseases
common to aging is not only theoretically feasible but within our reach,"
Gad Rennert, MD, PhD, who served as senior author for the colon cancer
study, says cholesterol-lowering drugs may be as effective for reducing colon
cancer risk as low-dose aspirin. He adds that combining the two low-cost drugs
may prove even more protective.
Rennert tells WebMD that his own as yet unpublished research suggests that
colon cancer risk can be reduced by 75% or even 80% by exercising regularly,
eating lots of vegetables, and taking low-dose aspirin daily along with a
Half the Risk
In the newly reported study, Rennert and colleagues examined the use of
cholesterol-lowering statin drugs among 1,953 people with colon or rectal
cancer living in northern Israel and 2,015 people without the disease.
The study participants were asked to recall every medication they had used
for at least five years, and prescription records were consulted to verify
The people without colon cancer were nearly twice as likely as cancer
patients to report that they had taken statins for five years or more. The
colon cancer risk reduction from statin use persisted even when other
protective lifestyle factors, such as exercising regularly and eating
vegetables, were taken into consideration.
Taking other cholesterol-lowering drugs was not shown to be associated with
a reduced risk of cancer.
Statins are known to inhibit cell growth and have anti-inflammatory actions,
and either or both of these mechanisms could help protect against cancer,
"Heart disease and cancer are the two big ailments of the western
world," Rennert says. "It is incredible to think that we may be able to
protect against both of them with the same extremely inexpensive