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Researchers say statins can reduce the need for a total colectomy in people with ulcerative colitis. Fly View Productions/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that in a new study, statins used to lower cholesterol were found to be a potential treatment for ulcerative colitis.
  • They said people with the inflammatory bowel disease who were taking statins had a 50 percent reduced rate of colectomy surgeries.
  • However, other experts said more research is needed before statins are declared an effective treatment for ulcerative colitis.

Cholesterol-lowering statins may be an effective treatment for ulcerative colitis.

In a recent study, researchers from Stanford University in California found the commonly prescribed medications lowered hospitalization rates and the need for a total colectomy in people with the inflammatory bowel disease.

“About 30 percent of ulcerative colitis patients eventually have to undergo a colectomy as a last resort. It’s a drastic measure. You’re removing part of your body,” Purvesh Khatri, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine and biomedical data science at Stanford University, said in a press release.

“So we thought, ‘Can we use available data to see whether drugs that are already approved by the FDA can be repurposed to better treat these patients?’” he added.

Khatri and colleagues analyzed data from hundreds of people with ulcerative colitis. The data included prescription information.

They then analyzed genomic data to determine how certain drugs influenced gene activity that’s associated with ulcerative colitis.

They identified three drugs that seemed effective at reversing the gene signature that contributes to the inflammatory disease.

Two of them were chemotherapy drugs, which Khatri said doctors wouldn’t prescribe due to significant side effects. The third drug was a statin.

Researchers examined electronic health records to determine whether study participants with ulcerative colitis were on a statin, and if they were, whether they had needed a colectomy.

They found that those with ulcerative colitis who were taking a statin had a 50 percent lower rate of colectomy than their peers who weren’t taking a statin. They were also less likely to be hospitalized due to their disease.

“At this point, one could argue that this data shows a strong enough connection to start prescribing statins for ulcerative colitis,” Khatri said in the statement. “I think we’re almost there. We need to validate the effects a bit more stringently before moving it into the clinic.”

Experts not associated with the Stanford study agree that more research is needed before statins are used as a treatment for ulcerative colitis.

“Statins are known to have some immunomodulatory properties. There are some animal studies and epidemiologic data to suggest that statins may have a beneficial effect on intestinal inflammation. However, the current level of evidence is low or very low,” Dr. Berkeley N. Limketkai, director of clinical research at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, told Healthline.

“Studies in humans have also so far generated inconsistent results. That is not to say that statins will not have a role in the treatment algorithm of [inflammatory bowel disease] in the future,” he said.

“Instead, more research is needed to evaluate whether the effect is clinically significant and safe and, if so, how one positions it in clinical practice,” he added.

Limketkai said it’s important to remember there are a number of factors that could influence the outcome of the Stanford study.

“For all we know, there might be something unique or particular about the patients who were already on statins that skewed the results toward a perceived favorable effect,” he said.

“For instance, those on statins may be individuals who seek a healthier lifestyle, eat better, have better follow-up with their primary care providers, are more compliant with their medications. We know that these factors also influence [ulcerative colitis] outcomes,” he explained.

Dr. Ashkan Farhadi, MS, FACP, a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, said the fact statins may be associated with lower rates of colectomy doesn’t mean it’s an effective treatment.

“Statins could be associated with less colectomy without implicating that you are treating. They found some association. I wouldn’t go that far to call it treatment. But they definitely found some trends,” he told Healthline.

Currently, there are a number of medications available to treat inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis.

However, Farhadi said none of them are particularly effective.

“When there are a lot of treatments for an illness, it means none of them are good, none of them are very effective. If one of them was really good, there is no need to have a lot,” he said.

Limketkai said more research is needed to determine whether statins could really be used in the treatment of ulcerative colitis.

“While the study found intriguing results, much more research is needed to assess whether statins have value for treatment of [ulcerative colitis] in clinical practice. Without rigorous clinical investigation to demonstrate actual and practical efficacy (and safety), the relationship is very interesting and important, but not yet actionable in clinical practice,” he said.

“If statins truly had such a powerful benefit, we would have observed these effects in the care of our patients and in the research literature far sooner,” Limketkai added.

“Statins are among the top three most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States (and probably the world),” he said, “yet we have seen the epidemiology of [ulcerative colitis] worsen over time.”