Statins, the pills taken by millions of people to combat high cholesterol, could more than halve the risk of bowel cancer, say researchers.
In a recent study, a team of doctors at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital found that the cholesterol-busting pills, which cost as little as 40p a day, slashed the chances of the disease developing by an average of 57 per cent.
And in patients taking higher doses of the cholesterol-busting drugs, or were on them for at least five years, the risk fell by more than 80 per cent.
The findings suggest the pills could be a cheap and effective way of easing the cancer burden on the NHS, if future large-scale investigations can confirm the results.
The researchers stressed the numbers involved in their study were small but the findings could be important in terms of preventing an often fatal illness.
“Statins may have a protective effect against the development of bowel cancer. In our study, they were associated with a significantly reduced incidence of the disease, and greater statin exposure offered more protection,” the Daily Mail quoted the researchers as saying.
The study raises the possibility that high cholesterol could be a key factor in the development of the disease and that taking a daily dose of statins may have a powerful preventive effect.
Although previous studies have investigated statins’ possible protective effects in bowel cancer, the results have been inconclusive.
But the latest results, published in the journal BMC Gastroenterology, point to much greater benefits than first thought, with laboratory tests suggesting the pills reduce the formation of polyps, the pre-cancerous growths in the bowel that can develop into tumours.
Dr Kat Arney, of Cancer Research UK, said the study provides ‘another piece of evidence to add to the pile’.
But she added that there is still no definitive answer on whether the drugs ‘have a significant effect on reducing cancer risk’.
To examine the effect on bowel cancer, the Norwich team recruited 101 cancer patients and another 132 healthy adults. They compared statin use among the two groups to see how it matched up with cancer diagnoses.
The results showed that patients who had taken statins at any time in the past were 57 per cent less likely to get a tumour.
The extent of the protection depended on how long they had been on the tablets and what dose they took, with those prescribed statins for under two years a third less likely to get bowel cancer than non-statin users.
But patients on them for five years or more were 82 per cent less likely to develop tumours.
While the standard daily dose of 40 milligrams halved cancer risk, higher doses slashed it by 80 per cent.
British cancer experts said last night the findings add to the evidence that statins may have a protective role and called for larger studies to investigate the possible health benefits.