Date Published: 14 May 2009
Common cholesterol lowering drugs reduce lung cancer risk
Commonly used cholesterol lowering drugs - called statins - may also protect against lung cancer and complications of smoker's lung, according to a review of over 90 scientific papers by researchers from The University of Auckland and Auckland City Hospital.
The review showed that patients taking statins were 30-50% less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer, and up to 50% less likely to die of complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, also known as smoker's lung or emphysema).
"Even though randomised controlled trials have yet to be done, these studies provide compelling evidence that statins significantly reduce lung cancer risk and improve survival in patients with COPD," says lead researcher Associate Professor Robert Young. "Although quitting smoking remains the single best way to protect the lungs against damage and cancer, statins appear to be highly beneficial, and they are the first drug to show this effect."
"We know that statins not only lower cholesterol but also modify inflammation in the lining of arteries, and that this may be even more important than the effect of lowering cholesterol. What has only recently become clear is that statins also reduce inflammation in the lungs of smokers and ex-smokers who have developed COPD."
The review of results from international studies involving more than 750,000 people suggests that statins may do as much, if not more, for the lungs as they do for the heart. The benefits include reduced rates of hospital admissions, less progressive decline in lung function and lowered risk of lung cancer.
Dr Young says that patients with COPD are at increased risk of suffering a heart attack and should be prescribed statins on that basis alone, but it's all the other potential benefits identified by these studies that also provide compelling reasons to consider adding statin therapy to smokers with damaged lungs.
On the basis of their findings the New Zealand researchers recommend that statins should be considered in all patients who have smoked and have evidence of lung damage (COPD).
Lung cancer and COPD are leading causes of death in New Zealand. Lung cancer affects about 1 in 10 smokers in New Zealand and is the most common cause of death from cancer. COPD affects about 1 in 5 smokers and is the fourth leading cause of death overall. While many people with COPD may benefit from taking statins, most remain undiagnosed.
"Given the strong relationship that exists between lung cancer and COPD and the overlapping pathways that cause them, it is very exciting to find a group of drugs that is already in widespread use with a proven safety record that confers beneficial effects on both of these lung diseases that affect many New Zealanders," says Dr Young.
This new clinical use for statins is one of the hot topics in the upcoming American Thoracic Society Meeting in the United States later this month where Dr Young is presenting some of his work.