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Past research has found statins may help stop tumor growth. aquaArts studio/Getty Images
  • A new study found that taking statins may reduce the risk of death for women with breast cancer.
  • Past research suggests high cholesterol is associated with a greater risk of breast cancer and statin use interrupts cancer cell signaling and tumor development.
  • Experts say further research is needed to study these early findings.

Statins may reduce the risk of mortality among women with breast cancer, new research has found.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open this month, found that the risk of dying was substantially lower in women with breast cancer whose cholesterol levels dropped after starting statins, which are commonly prescribed lipid-lowering medications.

Past research suggests high cholesterol may be associated with a greater risk of breast cancer. It’s possible that statin use interrupts cancer cell signaling and tumor development.

The new findings suggest statins may be beneficial for people with breast cancer, which is the most common cause of cancer death among women across the world, the researchers say.

“This suggests a potentially beneficial role for statins in breast cancer treatment, highlighting the importance of cholesterol management in cancer prognosis,” Dr. Wael Harb, board-certified hematologist and medical oncologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast and Saddleback Medical Centers in Orange County, CA, told Healthline.

Harb was not involved in the study.

The researchers evaluated statins in 13,378 females with breast cancer.

They followed up, on average, for 4.5 years after breast cancer diagnosis, during which time 16.4% of patients died and 7% died from breast cancer.

The researchers found the risk of death dropped among those who started taking statins after diagnosis and experienced a reduction in cholesterol levels.

The team found that 7.6% of the participants who did not take statins died of breast cancer compared to 6.1% who took statins.

“In a retrospective study, this is a very small difference and not definitive,” Dr. Parvin Peddi, the director of Breast Medical Oncology for the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and Associate Professor of Medical Oncology at Saint John’s Cancer Institute, said.

Peddi was not involved in the study.

The reduced risk of death was also observed among women with estrogen receptor–positive tumors.

The risk further declined with increasing intensity of statin use, the study found.

The risk of death didn’t drop in women whose cholesterol levels did not substantially decrease after starting statins.

In addition, the decreased risk was only apparent in people with localized disease.

The researchers suspect statins may not improve survival rates among those with metastatic disease.

“The main takeaway is that post-diagnostic use of statins in breast cancer patients is associated with a reduced risk of death from the disease, especially when statin use leads to decreased cholesterol levels,” Harb said.

In studies conducted in mice, a metabolite of cholesterol — 27-hydroxycholesterol — appeared to promote tumor growth and metastases.

In the current study, the researchers note that statins may be beneficial for breast cancer because they lower serum lipoproteins or interrupt cancer cell signaling pathways.

Laboratory studies have found that statins have anti-invasive and antiangiogenic effects, meaning they inhibit tumor growth.

In addition, cholesterol is a precursor for estrogen production, and high estrogen levels are connected to a greater risk of breast cancer.

“Statins, by lowering cholesterol levels, may reduce estrogen availability, impacting the progression of estrogen-sensitive tumors,” Harb says.

“This dual mechanism — both lowering cholesterol and influencing cell behavior — could explain why statin use after a breast cancer diagnosis might improve survival, particularly in cases where it effectively reduces cholesterol levels,” Harb added.

Peddi says the anti-inflammatory effects of statins may play a role, too, however, “no study has been able to prove and definitely show that is the case.”

Statins are currently not routinely prescribed to treat breast cancer.

According to Harb, the study demonstrates that people with breast cancer — particularly those with estrogen receptor-positive tumors — may benefit from statin therapy post-diagnosis, especially if it lowers their cholesterol levels.

Peddi thinks it’s too soon to start incorporating statins into breast cancer treatment plans.

“I would not recommend taking a statin at time of breast cancer diagnosis unless needed independently for its cholesterol-lowering properties,” she said.

Additional studies are needed to explore the use of statins for breast cancer treatment.

“The findings of this study, coupled with existing research, may pave the way for future clinical trials and potentially integrate statin therapy into standard breast cancer treatment, but more research is needed to confirm these benefits,” Harb said.

New research has found that statins may reduce the risk of mortality among women with breast cancer. Some evidence suggests statins may interrupt cancer cell signaling pathways and inhibit tumor growth. More research is needed to understand the effects of statins before they are integrated into breast cancer treatment.