New Study: Statins May Reduce Deaths From This Surprising Cancer

Updated: Dec. 20, 2023

Oncology researchers say a widely used cholesterol medication may show another important benefit among a certain group.

Breast cancer touches 2.3 million lives annually, not to mention those who are affected by a loved one’s journey. To tackle this, in February 2023 the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an initiative aimed at saving 2.5 million lives from breast cancer by 2040 by focusing on health education, early detection, and effective treatment strategies.

Amid these global efforts, an exciting new avenue for breast cancer treatment has emerged: Statins. These drugs, which are more commonly used for cholesterol control and heart disease prevention, are now being studied for their potential role in breast cancer therapy.

One recent study conducted in Finland and published November 2023 in the peer-reviewed American Medical Association journal JAMA Network Open involved 13,378 women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. As experts in oncology, surgery, radiology and public health, the study’s authors are reporting powerful findings—in their words, that “cholesterol-lowering interventions with statins may be beneficial for breast cancer.”

The statins and breast cancer study

Here’s some background on what precipitated the research team’s hypothesis: In 2021, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center conducted a study that offered insight on the benefits of statins for individuals with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), a challenging form of breast cancer to treat as it lacks three common hormone receptors—estrogen, progesterone, and HER2—making it less responsive to standard hormonal therapies. This research offered some hope, showing that TNBC patients who took statins experienced an average 58% improvement in breast cancer survival, along with a 30% increase in overall survival rates.

Commenting on these results, Kevin Nead, MD, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and leader of the 2021 study, explained that statins appeared to work by reducing breast cancer cell division and increasing cell death. Dr. Nead also stressed that breast cancer is not just one disease, but a collection of various subtypes, each requiring its own specific approach in research and treatment. This discovery may have helped pave the way for more customized approaches in upcoming research to combat breast cancer.

So now, the 2023 JAMA Network Open study sought to back up those findings. This current study involved participants predominantly in their 60s selected for the study based on records of their hormone receptor status and cholesterol levels. (Hormone receptors, which are proteins located in and on breast cells, play a pivotal role in how breast cancer develops and responds to treatments. These receptors can bind to hormones like estrogen and progesterone, and their presence, or lack thereof, significantly influences the progression of breast cancer.) The research primarily aimed to explore the impact of statin use on breast cancer survival rates, examining women who started the medication before and after their breast cancer diagnosis.

The researchers discovered that women who began statin therapy following their breast cancer diagnosis experienced a notably reduced risk of mortality from the disease, particularly when this was paired with reduced cholesterol levels.

Conversely, those who had been taking statins before their diagnosis did not see the same benefits—in fact, some even showed a slight increase in the risk of death from breast cancer.

Another important observation from the study was that women with estrogen receptor-positive tumors—cancers that grow in response to the hormone estrogen—appeared to derive more significant benefits from starting statins after their diagnosis.

Beyond these specific findings, the study observed a broader, positive trend: A reduced risk of death among all women who used statins, suggesting that these medications could offer wider health benefits.

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