Cancer patients may lower their risk of dying from the disease if they take the cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, a new study from Denmark suggests.
The patients who took statins were about 15 percent less likely to die from their cancer than other cancer patients were, the researchers reported after studying the records of nearly 300,000 people.
"We observed an association between statin use at the time of diagnosis and a reduced risk of cancer-related mortality," the researchers wrote in their study, appearing tomorrow (Nov. 8) in the New England Journal of Medicine.
It's not exactly clear how statins would lower the cancer death rate, and the researchers and others cautioned that further study is needed to determine whether statins were truly the cause of the lower risk and whether other factors were involved.
The researchers noted, however, that studies have shown that by blocking cholesterol production and certain protein interactions in cells, statins may influence the ability of cells to proliferate and migrate through the body. So statins could be reducing the ability of cancer cells to metastasize, they wrote.
The researchers, led by Sune Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen, used data from two databases — one that tracks information on all cancer patients in Denmark, and another that tracks drug prescriptions. They looked only at cancer patients who were at least 40 years old. (Younger patients are unlikely to take statins.)
The study included people diagnosed with cancer between 1995 and 2007. The researchers compared death rates between the group's nearly 19,000 statin users and the 277,000 others. They tracked the patients through 2009, and over that time 162,000 died from cancer.
Previous research of patients with advanced prostate cancer also showed a decrease in fatal cases among those taking statins, and studies of prostate and breast cancer patients have linked the drugs with lower rates of cancer recurrence.
However, the researchers noted studies of cancer-free people taking statins for their cardiovascular health benefits have not shown that the drugs bring any decrease in the risk of developing or dying of cancer.
The researchers concluded that clinical trials of statins in cancer patients are needed. Further studies could to track current patients over time to better determine whether statin use prolongs survival, they said.
Dr. Neil Caporaso, a genetic epidemiologists at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., said whether statins, which are widely prescribed, may reduce deaths from cancer is an "important public health question," but he urged caution in interpreting the findings.
Writing in an editorial accompanying the study in the journal, Caporaso noted that the study did not account for smoking, which could be linked with both a person's need to take statins and his likelihood of dying from cancer. And while the researchers took into account factors that affect cancer patients' death rates, such as age and cancer stage, they could not account for all variables that might affect mortality, Caporaso said.
Caporaso disagreed that now is the time to being trials of statins in cancer patients, saying current trials of statins could first be used to determine which drugs and doses may combat cancer, and for how long treatment might need to be undertaken in order to see an effect.
Pass it on: Statins may lower cancer patients' risk of dying from their disease, but further studies are needed.
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