Study: Statins Appear to Improve Cancer Survival

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Super-common cholesterol drugs like Lipitor decreased mortality for 13 types of cancer.

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PROBLEM: Statins -- like the brand names Lipitor, Zocor, and Crestor -- are the most commonly prescribed medications for lowering cholesterol. Cholesterol is integral to cell growth. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen put these two ideas together and looked to see if the connection could be relevant to patients with cancer -- the disease chiefly characterized by unregulated cell growth.

METHODOLOGY: The study, which was published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, was based on an analysis of almost 300,000 cancer patients from Danish national databases. Of the patients, 18,721 had regularly taken statins before they were ever diagnosed with cancer. 277,204 had never used them. 

RESULTS: The patients on a steady regime of statins pre-diagnosis were, on average, 15 percent less likely to die from cancer than their non-statin-taking peers. They were also 15 percent less likely to die from any other cause. These effects were observed for 13 types of cancer, from an 11 percent reduced risk among patients with pancreatic cancer to 36 percent improved odds for those with cervical cancer. 

For 14 other types of cancer, though, no clear associations were found. Increased dosage did not seem to be related to decreased mortality; in fact, mortality increased slightly among those taking higher doses of statins.

CONCLUSION: Statin use in some cancer patients is associated with decreased mortality. 

IMPLICATIONSThe authors are now calling for randomized trials to determine whether there might be a causal relationship. Previous studies have shown that statins can reduce the risk of developing cancer; this one indicates that they might actually be useful in treating cancer once it's developed. 

A representative from the American Cancer Society cautions that it's too soon to start recommending that cancer patients start taking these drugs as treatment. It's possible that effects of statins were conflated with those of aspirin, which was recently shown to improve cancer survival and is often taken along with cholesterol-lowering drugs. And randomized trials used to study statins' effects on heart disease don't seem to have ever yielded any results about cancer -- but that could just be because no one was looking.

The full study, "Statin Use and Reduced Cancer-Related Mortality" is published in the New England Journal of Medicine .

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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