Could statin drugs go beyond reducing cholesterol levels and actually stop certain breast cancer tumors in their track?

Early-stage research published in the journal Breast Cancer Research recently showed that some of these tumors can produce 25-hydroxycholesterol (25-HC), a molecule from cholesterol that can mimic estrogen and encourage tumor growth.

Most breast cancers grow via estrogen, and specific drugs inhibit the hormone's supply to reduce the probability of the cancer returning post-surgery. However, some 12,000 out of 40,000 confirmed estrogen receptor (ER) positive cancers manage to return each year.

During treatment, these ER-positive breast cancer forms typically turn resistant to standard hormonal therapy, revealed Dr. Lesley-Ann Martin of the Institute of Cancer Research based in London, where the new study is performed.

“Our research has demonstrated that these cancer cells can use a cholesterol molecule to mimic estrogen so that they continue to grow without it,” she said in a report in The Guardian.

Dubbing the breakthrough “hugely significant,” Martin explained that testing for 25-HC, or enzymes creating it, may allow doctors to see which individuals are more prone to developing resistance to the hormone therapy. Statins may then become an important addition to treatment, warranting clinical testing.

The researchers studied laboratory cancer cells and saw that they produced the cholesterol molecule. After interfering with the said production, they found that cancer cell growth was slowed by 30 to 50 percent.

The research, however, has not yet been tried in humans. The tumors’ cholesterol production is also not the sole reason behind the return of ER-positive breast cancer, although the findings are already raising excitement.

“This discovery may, in future, help reduce these concerns for some patients, by allowing doctors to test if their cancer is likely to return, and tailor treatment accordingly,” hoped clinical nurse specialist Jane Murphy.

A separate study published in May reported that statins may protect patients, who have narrowed leg arteries, from amputation and even death.

The Emory University researchers investigated the health data of more than 208,000 veterans suffering peripheral artery disease (PAD), and saw that those who took higher statin doses had a 33 percent reduced amputation risk and a 29 percent lower likelihood of death.

Statin drugs are standard treatment for cutting the risk for stroke, heart attack and heart disease-linked death.

Photo: Steve Snodgrass | Flickr

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