People infected with chronic hepatitis C, which puts them at increased risk of liver cancer, may be less likely to develop the disease if they take statins, suggests new research from Taiwan. But U.S. experts quoted in a Reuters Health article on March 21 cautioned that statins can’t prevent cancer and said the study results aren’t reason enough to recommend the use of the cholesterol-lowering drugs only in an effort to prevent liver cancer.
In fact, previous studies have conflicting results about the ability of statins to protect against cancer. And the studies don’t prove cause and effect. Even if people with chronic hepatitis C take statins and have a modest overall reduction in liver cancer, as some nonrandomized, observational studies have shown, that doesn’t mean the statins prevented the liver cancer, experts said. Other factors may play a role.
Researchers from the National Taiwan University College of Public Health in Taipei, Taiwan, used nationwide data there to track about 261,000 people with hepatitis C from 1999 through 2010. During that period, about 13 percent of those people filled a prescription for statins. A total of 28,000 people were diagnosed with liver cancer by 2011, which represents about 1 percent of those with hepatitis C each year. When the researchers accounted for other diseases and age and gender, they found that those who took statins were about half as likely to get liver cancer as those who didn’t take statins.
The researchers speculated that statins may prevent the hepatitis C virus from replicating, or that statins could slow the growth of cancer cells. But because the researchers only used existing data, they weren’t able to track other health and lifestyle factors, such as weight, smoking and alcohol use, that could affect liver cancer risk. Therefore, the researchers could not prove that statins actually affected cancer risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C is the most common chronic bloodborne infection in the United States. The Taiwan researchers said that having hepatitis C increases a person's chance of liver cancer up to 20-fold. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 30,600 Americans will be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2013.