Women who take statins “long term” may be less likely to develop ovarian cancer, research suggests.
The cholesterol-lowering drugs have proved controversial over the years, with many arguing they are doled out too readily.
After looking at the genes of more than 94,000 women, scientists from the University of Bristol found some naturally inhibited the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase.
This is the exact enzyme statins target to lower cholesterol.
From this, the scientists estimated women who take statins “long term” may be 40% less at risk of ovarian cancer, even if they carry the “Angelina Jolie” gene BRCA1/2.
Statins have been shown to induce apoptosis, or “cell suicide”. This is the body’s natural way of removing old, faulty or infected cells.
Around 7,400 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year in the UK.
In the US, 21,750 women are expected to be told they have the disease in 2020.
Unlike smear tests for cervical cancer or mammograms for breast tumours, ovarian cancer has no national screening programme.
Statins are prescribed to lower cholesterol, which helps regulate cell growth.
Tumours arise when cells start to grow or multiply uncontrollably.
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To uncover the potential of statins in cancer prevention, the scientists looked at more than 63,000 women aged between 20 and 100.
Of these, more than 22,000 had ovarian cancer.
The team also analysed an additional 31,400 women who carried a mutation of the BRCA1/2 gene, of whom more than 3,800 had ovarian cancer.
This mutation is known to increase a woman’s ovarian and breast cancer risk.
It prompted Angelina Jolie to famously have a double mastectomy in 2013, followed by surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.
The Tomb Raider actress’ mother and grandmother both died of ovarian cancer.
The Bristol scientists studied the participants’ genes to uncover how well they inhibit HMG-CoA reductase, which regulates cholesterol.
Based on the results - published in JAMA - the scientists claim taking statins “long term” could reduce the risk of ovarian cancer among women in the “general population” by around 40%.
The same is also claimed for those who carry the BRCA1/2 mutation.
The definition of “long term” is unclear.
Many people who take statins experience “no or very few side effects”.
Nevertheless, patients have complained of everything from joint pain and nosebleeds to insomnia and memory problems.
The NHS stresses the risks have to be balanced against the benefits, with a study review finding around one in every 50 people who stake statins for five years will avoid a “serious event” as a result.
“Our findings open up the possibility of repurposing a cheap drug to help prevent ovarian cancer, especially in women who are at a higher risk,” said study author Professor Richard Martin.
“It’s incredibly interesting that women whose bodies naturally inhibit the enzyme targeted by statins have a lower risk of ovarian cancer, but we don’t recommend anyone rushes to take statins specifically to reduce ovarian cancer risk because of this study.
“It’s a promising result and I hope it sparks more research and trials into statins to demonstrate conclusively whether or not there’s a benefit.”
Cancer Research UK funded the research, calling it a “great first step”.
It added, however, “there’s not yet enough evidence to know if statins themselves could reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer safely”.