There’s been a bit of a buzz around the possible beneficial effects of statins on prostate cancer for a while now. And recently, new research has given us a bit more of an insight into why statins appear to help hormone therapies stay effective for longer. Sophie Lutter looks into the science and asks if statins should become a standard part of treatment.
Statins are a group of medicines that can help lower levels of a type of cholesterol. Many men take them for conditions unrelated to prostate cancer. Now researchers from the Dana Faber Cancer Institute in Boston have found out more about the effects of statins in men being treated with hormone therapy.
The research team looked back at the clinical records of 926 men whose prostate cancer had either returned after treatment, or who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer that had already started to spread. Almost one third of those men were already taking some form of statin (for an unrelated condition) at the time that they started on hormone therapy.
It’s an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that while hormone therapy is very effective at keeping prostate cancer under control for a time, eventually it stops working and the cancer becomes ‘hormone resistant’. This team of researchers found that it took longer for the cancer to become hormone resistant in the men who were taking statins at the same time as hormone therapy than in those who weren’t.
The team then asked every scientist’s favourite question: ‘Why?’ To answer this, they went back to the lab.
Cells don’t operate an open door policy when it comes to drugs and other molecules that want to get inside. They have a membrane barrier around them, which is manned by ‘gate-keeper’ proteins. These gate-keepers are very selective and each type only lets in a certain sort of molecule. What’s interesting here is that in prostate cancer cells, the same type of gate-keeper is responsible for letting in both statins, and a pre-cursor of testosterone – the main hormone that drives prostate cancer growth.
The scientists found that these two types of molecules ‘compete’ to get past the gate-keeper protein and into the cell. That means it takes longer for testosterone to build up inside prostate cancer cells when statins are there, than when they’re not. This might explain why statins appear to help delay the progression of prostate cancer for longer.
Just hold your horses for a while longer on that one. While this research is really interesting, and suggests that statins could be a cheap and effective way to keep prostate cancer in check for longer, let’s not forget that this study only looked at men who were already prescribed statins for an unrelated condition. We can’t yet be sure whether it would be a good idea for men who have no such second condition to be taking statins. So more studies are needed to investigate this further.
Our Director of Research, Dr Iain Frame, says: “Men can often manage advanced prostate cancer for many years by taking hormone therapy, however the treatment eventually stops working and the cancer becomes much more difficult to restrain. Whilst we continue to explore why men’s cancers stop responding to hormone therapies, this study suggests that taking statins alongside these established treatments could be an effective and affordable way to extend the time that they can keep the cancer in check. We hope that the findings go on to be verified by further trials.”
Every year, at the start of November, scientists and doctors from every cancer speciality gather in Liverpool for the NCRI - the UK’s largest cancer conference. This year we sponsored a special session calling on the research community to think outside the box about the next big steps in the treatment of advanced prostate cancer - beyond hormone therapies. And we explain the promising results they revealed.