New research from the US suggests men with prostate cancer who took or started taking statins before their diagnosis, may reduce their risk of dying from the disease. Statins are a class of drugs prescribed for lowering cholesterol.

Lead researcher Janet L. Stanford, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle, Washington, and colleagues. write about their findings in a paper published online this week in the The Prostate journal.

The researchers believe if their results are confirmed, the next step should be a clinical trial of statins in prostate cancer patients.

First author Milan S. Geybels, who used to work in Stanford’s group at FHCRC and is now at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, says in a statement:

“While statin drugs are relatively well tolerated with a low frequency of serious side effects, they cannot be recommended for the prevention of prostate cancer-related death until a preventive effect on mortality from prostate cancer has been demonstrated in a large, randomized, placebo- controlled clinical trial.”

For their study, Geybels, Stanford and colleagues followed about 1,000 prostate cancer patients based in the Seattle area who were diagnosed between 2002 and 2005.

At time of diagnosis, around 30% of the participants were current or former users of statins to control cholesterol. This was assessed in a detailed face-to-face interview.

Over the follow-up, researchers monitored how the cancer progressed in the participants, whether there were any recurrences and deaths. This was done by surveys and also consulting a national cancer registry, SEER.

After an average follow-up of nearly 8 years, they found that the risk of dying from prostate cancer among men who used statins was 1%, compared with 5% for those who did not.

There was no link between statin use and cancer recurrence or progression.

Stanford, who is co-director of FHCRC’s Prostate Cancer Research Program and a member of the Center’s Public Health Sciences Division, says in a statement:

“If the results of our study are validated in other patient cohorts with extended follow-up for cause-specific death, an intervention trial of statin drugs in prostate cancer patients may be justified.”

While there have been previous studies on the effect of statins in prostate cancer, these have measured changes in PSA, a biochemical marker, and not deaths.

This is the first study to look at the link between statin use and deaths in prostate cancer patients.

“Very few studies of statin use in relation to death from prostate cancer have been conducted, possibly because such analyses require much longer follow-up for the assessment of this prostate cancer outcome,” explains Geybels.

While they did not investigate them in the study, the researchers suggests two possible mechanisms for the link between statin use and lower risk of death from prostate cancer.

One way could be that when cholesterol is incorporated into cell membranes, it helps prostate cancer cells survive. Taking statins reduces cholesterol which in turn reduces this effect.

Another way is that statins inhibit a compound called mevalonate that helps produce cholesterol.

Geybels says any compound that stops or slows the progression of prostate cancer would be beneficial.

“Prostate cancer is an interesting disease for which secondary prevention, or preventing poor long-term patient outcomes, should be considered because it is the most common cancer among men in developed countries and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths,” says Geybels.

Funds from the National Cancer Institute in the US, the Dutch Cancer Society, the Prostate Cancer Foundation and FHCRC financed the study.

Another area of research that is finding promising avenues to pursue for cancer treatments is “oncolytic viruses”, or viruses that target cancer cells. An interesting example of this was published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Virology, where a team of veterinary scientists suggested that a modified disease virus that targets and kills all types of prostate cancer cells and leaves normal cells untouched shows promise as a cancer treatment.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD