Experts are “very excited” by the new findings about the drugs which are already taken by eight million Britons Statins could cut the risk of dying of cancer by up to half, major research suggests.
A mass study of almost 150,000 people found those taking the cheap cholesterol-lowering drugs were far more likely to survive the disease. Experts at the world’s biggest cancer conference in Chicago said they were “very excited” by the new findings about the drugs which are already taken by eight million Britons.
US research found that for some of the most common cancers – including breast, bowel, prostate and ovarian disease – death rates were at least 40 per cent lower among those taking statins. For some rarer cancers, the difference was as much as 55 per cent.
Across the board, cancer mortality was one fifth lower for those on the daily pills, the research found. One study suggested the daily 10p pills are “more effective than chemotherapy,” experts said. Cancer specialists said the findings were extremely encouraging, giving “an added push” for the case for millions more Britons to take the cheap daily drugs.
The group of studies did not show statins would prevent cancer. But the data suggests taking them daily could save thousands of lives, by slowing the spread of diseases which one in two Britons will develop.
Doctors said the exact mechanism behind the “anti-cancer” effect is not established, but the drugs reduce cholesterol, which is known to fuel the spread of disease. Heart disease experts say the drugs currently save around 7,000 lives a year in the UK, by warding off heart attacks and strokes.
The new research, presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, suggests the drugs could do far more, saving the lives of thousands more people with cancer. The 15 year study of 146,000 women, aged 50 to 79, found overall cancer mortality fell by 20 per cent among those taking the daily pills.
Some of the most significant differences were seen in the most common forms of cancer. A fall of 43 per cent was seen for bowel cancer – the fourth most common cancer, with 40,000 diagnoses in the UK each year. For breast cancer – the most common cancer in women, with 50,000 cases annually, the drop was 40 per cent.
The highest difference was found in bone cancer, where rates dropped by 55 per cent. Dr Ange Wang of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who led the study, said the findings suggest that a simple daily pill could become a major weapon in the war on cancer.
“We’re definitely very excited by these results,” she said. Although the findings from the study came from the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, there was no reason to think the findings would not be the same in men, researchers said.
The study compared the death rates of those taking statins with those who were not. It did not prove cause and effect, but experts said the link was so strong it should be researched more closely. Dr Wang said: “I think it should be a priority given how common statins are and how much their use has expanded, and how prevalent cancer is.”
A second study, by the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, examined death rates of 20,000 men with prostate cancer, among those taking other medications. Those taking statins were 40 per cent less likely to die from the disease, which is the most common cancer in men, with 40,000 diagnoses each year.
Deaths from all causes fell by one quarter among those taking the cholesterol-busting drugs. Lead researcher Dr Grace Lu-Yao said: “It’s amazing to see that effect. Prostate cancer has modern therapies which cost in the $100,000 (£65,000) range for a few months of therapy and the effect is about the same. “If this gives a similar effect to these expensive therapies it will be very helpful for a large population,” she said.
Separate animal trials found the drugs were even “more effective than chemotherapy” in reducing the spread of disease, she said, a finding she described as “amazing”. Dr Lu-Yao, said: “A lot of people are taking statins to prevent cardiovascular disease. If we can demonstrate that it really reduces cancer deaths it will be an added benefit.”
A major clinical trial would be “the step before you go to the clinic and say ‘everybody gets statins,’” she said. Professor Noel Clarke, Professor of Urological Oncology at The Christie, said the emerging data added weight to the case for taking statins. “The balance of evidence says that statins have an anti-cancer effect,” he said. “Therefore if someone is in a situation where there is increased risk of cancer, be it prostate cancer or breast, then a discussion could be had about the risks and benefits of statins. It’s an added push – an added impetus.”
“If you’ve got drugs with minimal side effects with a large amount of benefit you’d give them without question.” The widespread use of statins in the UK has been controversial, with concerns from some medics about “mass medicalization” of the public, and arguments about the level of side-effects.
Britain already prescribes more of the drugs than any country in Europe. Last year guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggested up to 17 million Britons should be taking the pills. Iain Frame of Prostate Cancer UK said the findings were interesting, but called for more research.
“There is increasing evidence that statins might help protect against aggressive prostate cancers but not as a general prevention agent for all prostate cancers,” he said. “We think that they act in a number of different ways and need to pin that down.”
He suggested it would be best to target the drugs on those with greatest risk of prostate cancer, rather than put everyone on statins. “Current thinking on statin use in prostate cancer is more towards the personalised medicine approach- ie identifying those at highest risk, rather than the catch-all medicalisation of the general population.”
Published: 02 Jun 2015. By Laura Donnelly
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