A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that statins, drugs used to lower cholesterol levels by blocking a key enzyme, improved survival in patients with non-metastatic colorectal cancer. The class of drugs is one of the most widely used in the country, with nearly half of Americans aged 65 and older taking them. The medications have a pretty good safety profile and are relatively inexpensive, but doctors aren’t yet ready to begin prescribing the drug to patients with colorectal cancer.
The study looked at a group of more than 7,500 participants based in England with newly diagnosed stage 1-3 colorectal cancer. Researchers found that statin use, when taken for at least a year after the initial cancer diagnosis, was associated with longer rates of survival.
Earlier studies may explain why statins have an effect on colorectal cancer, including the drug’s effect on cell apoptosis (“cell suicide”), inhibiting cell growth and angiogenesis (the process of supplying blood and nutrients to a tumor) and enhancing the immune response–processes that would impact cancer cells. The same cellular process by which statins block cholesterol production also may impact certain processes used in producing cancer cells and their growth. It could be that statins interfere with the cancer’s ability to metastasize or possibly enhance the effect of chemotherapy.
Of course, more follow-up and randomized studies will need to happen before statin’s effect on cancer can be confirmed and it makes its way into clinical practice. As with any treatment, risks and benefits will need to be weighed for each individual patient before prescribing, but it does look promising.
Thomas Cartwright, a colorectal cancer specialist with Florida Cancer Affiliates and a member of CURE’s advisory board, says that while these latest study results are interesting, he doesn’t think any physician would prescribe statins to a patient with colon cancer patient based on this single study.
“There are many potential confounding factors and limitations in a study like this,” he says. “Statins can have side effects, as well, and a similar study showed statins may increase the risk of diabetes.”