Statin Treatment Linked to Fewer Cancer Deaths

Tim Locke

July 12, 2016

Being treated for high cholesterol with statins is being linked with a reduced risk of death and better survival from four common cancers, a medical conference has heard.

The results come from a study of 14 years of UK data that included nearly a million people.

Cholesterol and Cancer

High cholesterol is known to increase the risk of heart disease, but less is known about the effect on the risk of developing cancer.

Previous research in animals found that giving statins for high cholesterol can reduce the risk of breast cancer, and researchers wanted to see if there was any effect of high cholesterol and its treatment on cancer deaths.

Anonymous information on people diagnosed for the first time with lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer was gathered from hospitals between January 2000 and March 2013.

Data on deaths from cancers came from the Office for National Statistics.

When researchers from several UK centres analysed the data, they found that people diagnosed with high cholesterol and one of the four cancers were less likely to die from cancer.

However, being diagnosed with high cholesterol usually lead to treatment, often with statins. So the researchers think the statin treatment might explain the protective effect, rather than high cholesterol itself.

They adjusted for other risk factors, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and other common causes of death.

Having a diagnosis of high cholesterol was linked to a:

  • 22% lower risk of death in lung cancer

  • 43% lower risk of death in breast cancer

  • 47% lower risk of death in prostate cancer

  • 30% lower risk of death in bowel cancer.

The study could only find a link between high cholesterol and a lower death risk, rather than establishing any cause-and-effect. However, high cholesterol has previously been linked with an increased risk of cancer, whereas animal experiments suggest that lowering cholesterol with statins may reduce it.

'Exciting' Findings

The findings were presented to the European Society of Cardiology Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology conference in Florence, Italy.

In a statement, lead author Dr Paul Carter from Aston Medical School, Aston University, says: "The discovery of a link between obesity and high cholesterol as risk factors for cancer has been exciting for researchers and the public.

"Even trendier is the idea that if high cholesterol can cause cancer, then cholesterol lowering interventions such as statins could reduce this risk."

He continues: "Our research suggests that there's something about having a high cholesterol diagnosis that improves survival and the extent to which it did that was quite striking in the four cancers studied. Based on previous research we think there's a very strong possibility that statins are producing this effect."

He believes these findings are also likely to be seen in other cancers, "but this is only speculation and would need to be confirmed by studies in different types of cancer."

More Research Needed

Senior author Dr Rahul Potluri says it is possible other medications taken for heart-related conditions may also help with cancer survival. "Other cardiovascular medications may also be protective and explain the varying levels of risk reduction in the four cancer types. For example, prostate cancer is associated with heart disease and these patients tend to take ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers," he says.

However, he cautions it is too soon to recommend statins alongside cancer treatment without a formal trial: "Patients with cancer who are at high risk or have established cardiovascular disease should be given statins as per current guidelines. I don't think at the moment we can give statins for cancer per se. But this could change if there was a positive result in the clinical trial."

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the 'peer review' process, in which outside experts scrutinise the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

SOURCES:

European Society of Cardiology Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology (FCVB) 2016, Florence, Italy. Abstract: Hyperlipidaemia reduces mortality in breast, prostate, lung and bowel cancer

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