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Could Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Fight Cancer?

University of Pittsburgh researchers might have stumbled onto a cost-effective way to fight cancer – with cholesterol-lowering drugs, or statins.

When it comes to cancer, Dr. Zoltán Oltvai, senior author of the study and associate professor of pathology, said most patients don’t die from their original tumor but rather from the cancer spreading throughout their bodies.

“Many times what you do is that you detected the primary tumor, you remove it or treat it, and then eventually several months or several years later metastases are growing in other parts of the body, in other organs, and those are usually very, very hard to treat,” Oltvai said.

He said it is still unknown what causes the cancer to eventually reawaken and grow.

According to Oltvai, the statins in the study appear to only affect the tumor cells that look like the one that metastasized.

“It is very important now to understand which particular steps that this metastatic cascade statins may  be able to interfere with,” Oltvai said.

The synthesis of cholesterol helps cancer cells to become mobile and re-colonize throughout the body, but statins could potentially block the synthesis process from completing.

Scientists have been aware of statins' seeming potential to fight cancer for years, but it wasn’t apparent why and various clinical trials have produced mixed results.

Oltvai said their study was actually concentrating on something completely different before they made this discovery.

“So the study was really focusing initially on modeling how tumor cell metabolism works – in other words how tumor cells metabolize various substrates that are available to them,” Oltvai said.

He said they now want to see if they can find additional existing drugs to help statins fight cancer.

Oltvai said it would be at least five to ten years before statins could be fully identified and used for this.

However, he’s really excited about finding a drug that is already used by millions that could be repurposed for another clinical goal because usually developing a completely new drug takes around 20 years.

“So it would be really great to be able to use existing drugs that are already out, that has been FDA approved…under a lot of post-marketing surveillance,” Oltvai said.