PILLS taken by millions to beat heart disease are also a powerful weapon against cancer, research has found.
Statins, which already save hundreds of thousands of lives by preventing heart attacks and stroke, have been shown to slash the risk of men dying from prostate cancer.
This is the most common form of cancer in British men and kills nearly 11,000 patients a year.
The cholesterol-reducing pills cost as little as 4p a day and could dramatically cut the financial burden the disease places on the NHS. Doctors increasingly believe patients should be given the drugs both to protect against getting cancer and to help treat tumours if they develop.
This latest research adds to growing scientific evidence that the cheap and effective daily pills could play a major part in slashing the toll of all forms of cancer. The disease claims at least 157,000 lives in Britain each year.
Dr Janet Stanford, the co-director of the Prostate Cancer Research Programme at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, said: “If the results of our study are validated with extended follow-ups, a trial of statin drugs in prostate cancer patients may be justified.”
The study, published online in the journal The Prostate, followed 1,000 cancer patients, a third of whom used statins to control their cholesterol.
After eight years, the researchers found that the risk of death from prostate cancer among statin users was one per cent compared with five per cent for non-users.
The researchers say their study is unique because most previous research looking at the impact of statin use on prostate cancer has focused on levels of PSA, an antigen secreted into the blood. This regularly produces “false positive” results and can detect just 20 to 40 per cent of cancers.
Dr Stanford said a potential explanation for the association between statin use and lower death rates from prostate cancer may be found in the way cholesterol acts in the body.
Statins can block a compound which is essential to cholesterol production. Lower levels of that compound, called mevalonate, can reduce the risk of fatal prostate cancer. Previous research has also linked cholesterol and cancer. Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Centre in New York found a gene that keeps cholesterol levels low also prevents tumours from forming or growing.
Several other recent studies also suggest people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs appear to have a reduced risk of cancer and people with the highest levels of cholesterol seem to have an increased risk of developing the disease.
Dr Milan Geybels, a former researcher in Dr Stanford’s group now based at Maastricht University in Holland, warned: “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 deaths until a preventive effect has been demonstrated in a large clinical trial.”
Helen Thompson, senior cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “The role of statins in cancer prevention is an intriguing area and continues to be looked at in a number of cancers.”