Statin, the newest stealth superdrug | health and fitness | Hindustan Times
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Statin, the newest stealth superdrug

The only car I have ever lusted after was the Lotus Esprit S1 from the Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Roger Moore’s wonder-machine had front-mounted rocket launchers and morphed into a submarine underwater. The screen role did more for Esprit sales than anything Lotus had attempted to do before. The company spent £18,000 on the film, which caused sales to shoot up so dramatically that the waiting list for the car ran into 3 years. Sanchita Sharma reports.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 21, 2012 21:57 IST
Sanchita Sharma

The only car I have ever lusted after was the Lotus Esprit S1 from the Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. Roger Moore’s wonder-machine had front-mounted rocket launchers and morphed into a submarine underwater. The screen role did more for Esprit sales than anything Lotus had attempted to do before. The company spent £18,000 on the film, which caused sales to shoot up so dramatically that the waiting list for the car ran into 3 years.

In a world obsessed with do-it-all devices that pack more tricks than gadget whiz Q would have dreamed of — and there is little he didn’t dream of, including a waterproof bodybag that allowed the purportedly dead Bond survive a burial at sea — anything that does one task alone, however efficiently, is considered redundant. And lately, the same argument is holding true for medicine.

Last year, the ubiquitous blood-thinning painkiller aspirin — which protects people from heart attacks and strokes by reducing the clumping action of platelets that clot and block blood flow to the heart and brain —was shown to also protect against bowel cancer, breast cancer and stop prostate cancer spreading to the bones, along with lowering death from it.

The latest drug inching up the ‘Wonderdrug Hall of Fame’ is the statin, the cholesterol-buster that makes bad cholesterol plummet enough to lower heart attacks by 60% and stroke by 17%. This week, it was reported to be effective in treating breast cancer, write US researchers in the journal Cell.

Benefiting most from statins were women with breast cancer who carry mutations of the p53 gene, which normally suppresses cancerous cells. The mutation, however, promotes cancer growth, causing rapid, invasive growth of tumours, found researchers from Columbia University. Treating breast cells carrying mutant p53 genes with statins — such as simvastatin, atorvastatin, lovastatin and pravastatin — reduced their invasive growth.

More than half of all cancers carry p53 gene mutations, which make statins a potential cure for most cancers.

Studies in the past have shown statins could be an arsenal in the clutch of treatments — chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, among others — used to fight cancer. Last year, a study in the journal Cancer said that men on statins had lowered risk of prostate cancer returning by 30%. A 2005 trial showed that patients taking statins for over 5 years lowered their risk of colorectal cancer by almost half.

At any given time, 28 lakh people have cancer in India, which is the fourth largest killer after heart disease, respiratory diseases and childhood diarrhoea. Ten lakh (one million) people develop cancer in the country each year, with the disease projected to rise five-fold — 2.8 times because of tobacco use and 2.2 due to ageing — by 2025.

Traditionally, statins are prescribed to lower bad cholesterol after changes in lifestyle — lowering weight, exercising, dietary changes, quitting smoking — fail to meet the cholesterol-lowering targets. The indications for its use, however, have broadened over the past decade. Cancers apart, statins have a favorable effect on inflammation, chronic high blood pressure, dementia, lung disease and cataracts.

The Heart Protection Study, the world’s largest trial of cholesterol-lowering treatment, showed preventative effects of statin use in diabetics. The ASTEROID trial (2006), using only a statin in high doses, lowered bad cholesterol dramatically and showed disease regression in the arteries.

This, of course, does not mean you pop statins like a multivitamin (which incidentally, has been shown to be inadequate in meeting nutrient deficiencies). It can cause muscle pain and cramps, and rarely, neuromuscular degeneration and loss of muscle function similar to symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Like any other medicine, it works best under prescription, which also explains why sales cross several billion dollars a year.

n sanchitasharma@hindustantimes.com