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Statins Not Likely to Help in Treatment of Lung Cancer

Statin drugs are typically used to lower cholesterol, but could they be part of the treatment of cancer as well?


Having high cholesterol not only is a danger to your heart, but can also be a risk factor for certain cancers, including lung cancer. The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study found that those who have dyslipidemia (altered cholesterol levels) could be at greater risk of developing lung cancer, especially among former smokers.

Cholesterol is thought to raise risk by playing a role in cell growth. It was thought that lowering cholesterol could impair this growth and possibly improving the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs.

Enter a potential role for the use of commonly known cholesterol lowering drugs known as statins.

Statins are a class of drugs often prescribed by doctors to lower cholesterol levels by blocking the action of a liver enzyme responsible for producing cholesterol. These drugs lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides while improving levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol levels.

One in four Americans over the age of 45 are currently taking these drugs to prevent heart attack and stroke, but could statins also play a role in the treatment of cancer? Could statins prevent cancer development or at least prolong survival in lung cancer patients?

No, says new research from the Imperial College London and University College London. The team has recently published their findings in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study, the largest randomized trial of statin therapy in cancer patients, was conducted using data from 846 patients from 91 hospitals in the UK who were on a specific statin known as Pravastatin or a placebo. The patients had small cell lung cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

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After two years, the patients displayed no advantages to having received the drug.

“It’s becoming increasingly common for patients with increased cholesterol to take statins and many cancer patients will be or have been prescribed these drugs entirely separately from their cancer treatment,” explains Professor Michael Seckl, who led the research.

“There’s no reason for people to stop taking statins to manage their cholesterol, but it’s extremely unlikely, for patients with small cell lung cancer, that taking statins will make any difference to their cancer treatment outcome.”

Potentially could another statin improve survival in lung cancer patients? Not likely, says Prof. Seckl. “Because all statins work in a similar way to lower cholesterol, it’s relatively unlikely that statins other than Pravastatin would have a different, more beneficial effect.”

Could statins be used in other types of cancer with success? “It is possible that ongoing statin trials of other types of cancers might find a benefit, and so it would be interesting to see their findings when available,” the team notes. “However, I think researchers should consider carefully whether to start a new statin trial as part of cancer treatment, without results from further large studies like ours.”

Statin drugs do also carry risks of serious side effects, the most common being headache, difficulty sleeping, flushing of the skin, muscle aches and weakness, drowsiness and dizziness, nausea or vomiting, abdominal cramping or pain, and potentially mental confusion or memory loss.

Journal Reference:
‘Multicenter, Phase III, Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Pravastatin Added to First-Line Standard Chemotherapy in Small-Cell Lung Cancer (LUNGSTAR)’ by Seckl, MJ. et al, is published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2016.69.7391)

Additional Resources:
Goldstein, M. R., Mascitelli, L., & Pezzetta, F. (2008). Do statins prevent or promote cancer? Current Oncology, 15(2), 76–77.
WebMD – What are Statin Drugs?