Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may slash the risk of cancers of the pancreas and esophagus by more than half, new studies show.
However, it's too soon to be sure, say researchers at Digestive Disease Week 2005 conference.
The reason for their hesitation? They didn't directly test statins. Instead, they checked medical records for a large number of U.S. veterans. The researchers analyzed data on statin use and pancreatic or esophageal cancer.
The studies didn't look at dose, duration, or specific statins used by the veterans. In addition, some important risk factors for esophageal cancer weren't noted. In other words, the findings may point toward a possible protective effect, but they're not conclusive.
Statins are widely used to lower cholesterol. They include the drugs Lipitor, Lescol, Mevacor Pravachol, Zocor, and Crestor.
In recent years, several studies have hinted that statins might lower the risk of cancers including prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and kidney cancer. But no one claims to have the final word yet.
Vikas Khurana, MD -- a doctor who worked on the latest studies -- says in a news release, "This research suggests that statins may play a role in preventing pancreatic and esophageal cancers. Although much confirmatory research still needs to be done, we hope this will encourage the medical community to further examine statins and their potential benefits in cancer prevention."
Khurana and colleagues studied medical records from more than 484,000 U.S. veterans who were about 61 years old. Most of the veterans were men (92 percent). More than 164,000 veterans were taking statins (34 percent).
Pancreatic cancer was seen in 475 people. That's 0.1 percent of the entire group.
After taking into account various risk factors like age, sex, smoking, alcohol use, diabetes, and statin exposure, the risk of pancreatic cancer was 59 percent lower in the men taking statins.
Among the same 484,000 veterans, 659 cases of esophageal cancer were noted (0.14 percent). Statin users were 56 percent less likely to develop esophageal cancer, say the researchers, who also took into account risk factors for this cancer such as age, smoking, alcohol use, and diabetes.
However, other esophageal cancer risk factors -- including a condition called Barrett's esophagus seen in severe cases of acid reflux -- weren't included in the study, say the researchers.
Pancreatic, Esophageal Cancers
In the Untied States, pancreatic cancer is the No. 4 cause of cancer death in men and the No. 5 cause of cancer death in women, says the American Cancer Society (ACS). More than 32,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed and almost as many will die of the disease this year, the ACS estimates.
Cancer of the esophagus is three to four times more common among men than women and 50 percent more common among blacks than whites, says the ACS. The ACS predicts that in 2005, there will be about 14,250 new cases of esophageal cancer and 13,570 deaths.
SOURCES: Digestive Disease Week 2005, Chicago, May 14-19, 2005. WebMD Medical News: "Statins Lower Prostate Cancer Risk." WebMD Medical News: "Cholesterol Drugs: Cancer Fighters?" WebMD Medical News: "Statin Drugs May Cut Colon Cancer Risk." WebMD Medical News: "Cholesterol Drugs May Prevent Cancer." News release, Spectrum Science Communications. American Cancer Society: "How Many People Get Pancreatic Cancer?" American Cancer Society: "How Many People Get Cancer of the Esophagus?"