Scientists say cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins may protect against the development of lung cancer. In a study appearing this month in the journal Chest, researchers report that statin use of six or more months was associated with a 55 percent reduction in risk for lung cancer. Risk dropped for all age groups—regardless of race, smoking status or body-mass index. The study is significant because it involved a very large group. Researchers from Louisana State University and the Overton Brooks V.A. Medical Center in Shreveport, La., studied more than 480,000 patients enrolled in the Veterans Administration Health Care System over a six-year period. Lung cancer is the most lethal form of the disease in the United States.
But what is it about statins that could be inhibiting cancer development? The lead author of the study, Dr. Vikas Khurana, an associate professor at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, explains: "Oncoproteins, which are the proteins that transform cells into cancer, need a kind of lipid to attach to cells. One of the byproducts of cholesterol production is that piece of fat which attaches the oncoproteins to the cells. If the statins block that fat, then there's no cancer." For now this is just a hypothesis, says Khurana, but he adds that the theory is supported by animal models and cell cultures.
Despite the encouraging news, researchers are not yet suggesting that doctors prescribe drugs like Lipitor as a cancer preventative. "Before we say 'OK, statins are going to reduce lung cancer,' we have to be sure there's not some other factor related to the statin use that's contributing to the reduction," says Khurana. The Louisana study was observational—scientists looked at what happened to those who took statins. They didn't select the subjects. And most of the patients were men. "What we need is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study to eliminate other factors before we recommend statins."