People taking statins to control their cholesterol levels may be getting an unexpected benefit for their lungs, new research suggests.
A study appearing in the latest issue of the journal Chest showed that patients who had taken statins for six months or longer cut their lung cancer risk by more than half.
In the study, a team of researchers led by Louisiana State University's Dr. Vikas Khurana looked back at the records of more than 400,000 patients in the Veterans Administration Hospital System, more than 160,000 of whom were taking statins at the time.
The research lends credence to previous animal and test tube studies suggesting that statins are capable of blocking the growth of cancer cells.
"Our study suggests that statins have a potential role in primary chemoprevention for lung cancer," the researchers write in their conclusion. "Due to the high prevalence of statin use and grave prognosis of lung cancer, even a modest reduction means a considerable effect on public health."
The numbers seem to agree. In 2005, lung cancer accounted for about 160,000 deaths in the United States. The researchers note that they hope future studies will help determine whether the drugs can one day be used to fight lung cancer in a clinical setting.
Dr. Tim Johnson, ABC News' medical editor, said on "Good Morning America" Tuesday that the findings, though preliminary, are intriguing. But he agreed that more research is needed to clarify the effects of statins on lung cancer and to iron out some potentially confusing trends.
"When they looked at people who had taken statins for less than six months, they seemed to have somewhat of an increased risk," Dr. Tim said. "So it is a complicated study and we now need a so-called gold-standard randomized trial."
Dr. Tim added that despite excitement over the findings, a prudent approach is needed to appropriately rein in enthusiasm.
"We've been burned before," he said. "For example, there were a lot of studies that seemed to suggest women should take hormone replacement therapy. But the final study showed it might be dangerous.
"If they're already taking it for lowering cholesterol, it is a great drug and they should keep taking it. They might want to take comfort in the possibility that they might also be reducing their risk for lung cancer. But nobody should start taking statins for that reason alone."
Wire reports contributed to this story.