Statins and Cancer Prevention: News from Denmark

A large study from Denmark appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine this week finds cancer patients who were using cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins at the time of their diagnosis had up to a 15% lower risk of death from cancer than those not taking the drugs.  The study involved the entire Danish population over the age of 40 who had been diagnosed with cancer between 1995 and 2007, more than 18,000 of whom had used statins regularly before the cancer diagnosis.

The researchers say the findings of their study are plausible because statins inhibit cholesterol synthesis with a processes that, in cancer cells, could inhibit cancer growth and spread.

But Eric J. Jacobs, PhD, American Cancer Society epidemiologist, isn’t convinced there’s enough data to recommend statins for cancer prevention or treatment just yet. Here’s what he told us.

“Results of this large study of cancer mortality among Danish cancer patients are intriguing and exciting and will stimulate important further research. However, they do not mean that people with cancer should start using statins in the hopes of improving their prognosis.

Eric M. Jacobs. Ph.D.

“Because this study was an observational study, the slightly lower cancer death rates among cancer patients who had used statins before their cancer diagnosis could have been caused by factors other than the statin itself. For example, some people may not have been prescribed statins because their cholesterol levels were actually being lowered by an undiagnosed, but ultimately fatal cancer. In addition, people using statins may have been more likely to use aspirin, which has been linked with improved cancer survival in some recent studies.

“Results of this Danish study also differ from results of randomized trials of statins for prevention of cardiovascular disease. If statins improve cancer survival, these randomized trials would be expected to have shown some reduction in cancer mortality, but no such reduction was seen. Additional research will be needed to clarify if and how statins might influence survival in cancer patients.

“Because all of the participants in the Danish study already had cancer, this study did not address the question of whether statin use can help prevent cancer. However, strong evidence from both randomized trials and observational studies indicate that statin use does not have important effects, either good or bad, on overall cancer risk.”

Article: Statin Use and Reduced Cancer-Related Mortality, Sune F. Nielsen, Ph.D., Børge G. Nordestgaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., and Stig E. Bojesen, M.D., Ph.D., D.M.Sc. N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1792-1802November 8, 2012DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1201735

For more information on statins and cancer, see the National Cancer Institute’s informational page.

About David Sampson

I am the director of medical and scientific communications for the American Cancer Society national home office.
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