Statins Could Be New Wonder Drugs

Feb. 1, 2001 -- Statins just might be the latest wonder drugs — though they're nothing new to doctors and pharmacists. ABCNEWS' Dr. Tim Johnson takes a look in Good Morning America's House Calls.

For years they have been around as part of a class of drugs that interfere with the production of bad cholesterol in the liver and help the liver get rid of the cholesterol. But new studies are showing that statins can wear many other hats.

They can help those with coronary artery disease by fighting arterial inflammation and stabilizing plaque. And in the past several years, the statins have been shown to help other diseases.

From Alzheimer's to Osteoporosis Dr. Tim Johnson told Good Morning America that in recent years these drugs have shown they might help prevent or reduce the risk for strokes, diabetes and other diseases. "We have studies that suggest they strengthen bone and may reduce the risk for osteoporosis."

"And probably most amazing of all, there are studies that show that they may significantly reduce the risk for Alzheimer's. All of these things have yet to be fully proven, but there are a lot of studies hinting in this," said Johnson.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week showed that early treatments with statins following heart attack reduces the risk of a recurrence one year later. Another study released last week from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina found that people taking pravastatin who have already had a heart attack or severe chest pain experienced a 22 percent reduction in risk of having a stroke.

Another recent study showed that statin drug pravastatin reduces risk of diabetes and stroke. A different study showed that statins may strengthen bones and help reduce the risk of osteoporosis. JAMA featured two observational clinical studies in which statins reduced the risk of hip and bone fractures in elderly patients.

And yet another study showed that statins may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by 70 percent when used as a preventative. Researchers don't know exactly how the drugs work in Alzheimer's, but one possibility is that the blockages in brain arteries may lead to Alzheimer's, Johnson said.

Are they Dangerous? Doctors have found that statins are remarkably safe, Johnson said. Indeed, they have been widely used for a number of years.

Patients who are pregnant, have active or chronic liver disease or those allergic to statins shouldn't use statin drugs, according to the American Heart Association.

But for those who can use the drugs, only two problems have been seen with them, Johnson said. About 1 percent of patients have experienced problems with liver functions, so when physicians give the drugs, they have to monitor liver function every six months or so, Johnson said.

Also, very rarely, doctors have seen myopathy, or muscle inflammation. But that condition goes away when the drug is decreased or eliminated. And both problems are extremely rare and reversible, Johnson said.

He doesn't believe that everyone should rush out and get the drugs, but he said those who are older and at greater risk for coronary artery disease or stroke, and especially those at risk for high cholesterol, should talk to their doctors about statins.

"The most important thing is that there are so many people who could benefit from these drugs, especially those with high cholesterol and coronary disease who aren't taking them," Johnson said. "These are almost miraculous for that purpose."

Many Types of Statins

There are currently six drugs in the family of statins, with a seventh, potentially the strongest called the superstatin, which is awaiting FDA approval, Johnson said.

But even though they have different names, experts feel the statins are much more alike than different, though they may differ slightly in potency.

However, drug companies are engaging in advertising battles to convince consumers that their brand is the real wonder drug.

The class of drugs that lowers LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, are the CoA reductase inhibitors, such as lovastatin, provastatin and simvastatin. Statin drugs are very effective for lowering LDL cholesterol levels and have few immediate short term side-effects.

Overall, the benefits of the new statin drugs are that they are easy to administer, have high patient acceptance and have few drug-drug interactions.

The most common side effects are gastrointestinal, including constipation and abdominal pain and cramps. These symptoms are usually mild to severe and generally subside as therapy continues Long-term safety data (longer than five years) should be available in the next one to two years. Meanwhile, clinical trials on the drugs are in progress.

Here is a list of statins, and the names they are sold under:

Lovastatin=Mevacor

Pravastatin=Pravachol

Simvastatin=Zocor

Fluvastatin=Lescol

Atorvastatin=Lipitor

Cerivastatin=Baycol

Rousvastatin=Crestor ***Not yet FDA approved