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The studies were to be presented Monday at Digestive Disease Week 2005, in Chicago.
"To my knowledge, statins are one of the best cancer prevention agents I have come across," said lead researcher Dr. Vikas Khurana, associate program director of the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Training Program and an assistant professor of medicine at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center.
For the two studies, Khurana's team collected data on 484,226 patients who participated in the South Central Veterans Administration Health Care Network from October 1998 to June 2004. To determine the effect of statins on pancreatic and esophageal cancer, the researchers looked at the medical records of the patients.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer. There are about 32,000 new cases diagnosed each year, and only about one in 25 patients will survive for five years or more, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Esophageal cancer is about three times more common among men than women, and about 50 percent more common among blacks. Esophageal cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, and most people with the disease eventually die from it, the researchers said. This year, 14,520 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer and 13,570 will die from it, according to the ACS.
The study researchers found that among those taking statins, the risk of developing pancreatic cancer was reduced by 59 percent, and the risk of esophageal cancer was cut by 56 percent.
Khurana said that in addition to his studies, animal and cell studies show that statins are effective against cancer. "What is lacking is human data" based on clinical trials, he added.
In addition to the studies on pancreatic and esophageal cancer presented Monday, Khurana's group presented similarly encouraging data on statins' value against breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer over the weekend at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Orlando, he said.
Those three studies, which looked at the same database, found statins were associated with a 51 percent reduced risk of breast cancer, a 54 percent reduced risk of prostate cancer and a 48 percent reduced risk of lung cancer.
Khurana was quick to point out that statins are not yet proven cancer fighters.
"The therapy still has to be for lipid lowering," he said. "But I believe we will be seeing the day when statins will be approved for cancer prevention. We need to look at this drug, it might be the next wonder drug after aspirin."
In fact, the Alzheimer's Association notes that some studies have found a link between taking statins to reduce cholesterol levels and a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease.
One expert is cautious about reading too much into the new research.
"These findings are preliminary but interesting and intriguing," said Dr. Durado Brooks, director for colorectal and prostate cancer at the American Cancer Society. "But it's going to require some more support."
Brooks believes that a well-designed clinical trial is needed before statins can be shown to really protect people from developing cancer. "I don't want to get too excited," he said. "It would be very encouraging if this data is borne out by a more sophisticated and complete experimental design."
SOURCES: Vikas Khurana, M.D., associate program director, Gastroenterology and Hepatology Training Program, assistant professor, medicine, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Shreveport; Durado Brooks, M.D., director, colorectal and prostate cancer, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; May 16, 2005, presentation, Digestive Disease Week 2005, Chicago
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