Nov. 8, 2012— -- People who use the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins were less likely to die from cancer, a new study found.
In a nationwide analysis of cancer patients in Denmark, statin users had a 15 percent reduction in the risk of death from cancer if they started using the drugs before their diagnosis, according to Dr. Stig Bojesen of the Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark and colleagues.
Statin users had a similar reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality compared to people who had not used the drugs, Bojesen and colleagues reported in the Nov. 8 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The findings suggest "a need for trials of statins in patients with cancer," the researchers concluded.
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Despite the fact that trials of the drugs to reduce cardiovascular disease have not shown any reduction either in cancer incidence or mortality, Bojesen and colleagues noted, there is evidence that the biochemical pathways involved in cancer growth and spread can be affected by statins.
That suggested that cancer patients who were statin users before their cancer diagnosis might do better than those who were not, the researchers theorized.
To examine the issue, they turned to Danish national databases for information on all Danes who were diagnosed with cancer between Jan. 1, 1995 and Dec. 31, 2007, with follow-up until Dec. 31, 2009.
The databases allowed study of statin prescriptions, cancer diagnoses, and mortality.
All told, among cancer patients 40 and older, 18,721 had used statins regularly before the diagnosis and 277,204 had never been given the drugs, they reported.
During 1,072,503 person-years of follow-up, 162,067 patients died of cancer, 14,489 of cardiovascular causes, and 19,038 of other causes, the researchers reported.
Outcomes were similar regardless of the dose of statin given.
Bojesen and colleagues cautioned, among other things, that the study was based on the mostly white population of Denmark, but may not apply more widely.
They also noted that it is possible that statin use was a marker of increased health awareness, which might bias the results, and some data on characteristics of the cancers were not available.
The limitations of the study mean it is too soon to start a clinical trial to test statins in cancer, argued Dr. Neil Caporaso of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.
In an accompanying editorial, Caporaso said the first step should be to examine existing research to figure out the "agent, dose, and duration of follow-up for an efficient, powerful, and convincing study of this important public health question."
Population studies are also needed to extend the results beyond Denmark, he argued, as well as basic science research to tease out mechanisms.
But, Caporaso wrote, the best approach would be to incorporate many research goals into interdisciplinary studies. "The effective solutions we seek will neither reside nor be effectively applied within a single discipline," he concluded.