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The findings aren't firm enough for doctors to make a blanket recommendation about statin therapy for men who have had prostate cancer, said study senior author Dr. Stephen Freedland, an associate professor of urology and pathology at Duke University.
Another physician went further, saying the findings simply aren't convincing.
Some prior research has suggested that men who took the cholesterol-lowering drugs were less likely than other men to develop advanced prostate cancer and have it come back. But other studies haven't found such positive effects, so the jury is still out, said Dr. Nelson Neal Stone, a professor of urology and radiation oncology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
The goal of the new study was to see if statins might be helping those who had already had the disease.
The researchers examined the medical records of more than 1,300 men who'd had their prostates removed after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Of those, 18% were taking a statin when they had the procedures.
The study results appear in the June 28 online issue of the journal Cancer.
After adjusting their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by factors such as high or low numbers or who were, say, obese or older, researchers found that those on statins were 30% less likely to suffer a recurrence of prostate cancer. More specifically, tumors recurred in 25% of those who didn't use statins and 16% of those who did.
The study doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship: The statins did not necessarily directly lower the risk of prostate cancer recurrence, the experts note. To confirm whether a drug actually reduces risk, researchers rely on studies -- unlike this one -- that randomly assign patients to certain treatments.
Stone added that the study has statistical problems that make its results questionable.
Still, men did better if they took higher doses of statins, Freedland said, suggesting that the drugs may have an effect. They may work by reducing inflammation that spurs tumor growth, he theorized.
Statins are among the most widely prescribed drugs in America, but they do come with risks. Patients may develop liver problems and muscle damage, although the likelihood of that is low, Freeland said.
And the drugs aren't as inexpensive as, say, aspirin. Statins can cost $5 a day or more, depending on dose, although some are much cheaper.
However, not every prostate cancer patient may need to take them, Freedland said. Tests at the time of surgery can estimate a man's risk of prostate cancer recurrence, and statins would be most appropriate for those at highest risk, he explained.
For now, Freedland doesn't recommend that prostate cancer patients start taking statins to prevent recurrence. However, "if you're already on a statin, I'd keep you on that statin," he said. "If you have a clear-cut indication, the benefits outweigh the risks."
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