People who took cholesterol-lowering drugs, or statins, run about half the normal risk of developing colon cancer, according to research in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Israel’s National Cancer Control Center studied
almost 4,000 people living in northern Israel from 1998 to 2004 in one of the largest research projects to date involving colon cancer patients.

Of patients in the study, 1,953 had colon cancer and 2,015 did not. All study participants were asked to recall every medication they had used for at least five years. Prescription records also were used to validate the survey data.

Overall, statin use was found to result in a 47% decrease in the risk of developing colon cancer. Almost all patients in the study reported using either Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s (BMY) Pravachol, known as pravastatin generically, or Merck & Co.’s (MRK) Zocor, known as simvastatin. The drugs are used to lower high cholesterol, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and strokes.

Among patients with colon cancer, 234, or 12%, reported using a statin for at least five years, compared with 120 patients, or 6%, in the control group.

One of the researchers, Gad Rennert, who is the director of Israel’s National Cancer Control Center, said they ruled out other factors such as diet, exercise and aspirin use and still found that statin use cut the risk of developing colon cancer by almost half.

“This is a very strong effect,” he said. Rennert said that, although a predominantly Jewish population was studied, the results would apply to most Americans as well.

He said it is too soon to recommend as public health policy that people who aren’t already on statins to lower high cholesterol start taking them to lower their colon cancer risk because additional studies need to be completed.

The National Cancer Institute is expected to open additional studies later this year or early next year looking at statins for preventing colon cancer and skin cancer.

In real terms, the effect of statins on cancer prevention is smaller; researchers estimate that 4,814 Israelis with an average risk of developing colon cancer would need to be treated with statins to prevent one case of colon cancer. Among those with a higher risk, about 2,400 people would need to be treated to prevent one case of colon cancer.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and grants from the Ravitz and the Weinstein foundations.

Rennert said people can already halve their risk of getting colon cancer by exercising, eating lots of vegetables and keeping their red meat consumption to a minimum. But, Rennert said he started taking a statin last year after preliminary results from his study were released.
Other recent research also has suggested that statins could cut cancer risk, including research released earlier this month at a major cancer conference that showed statins cut the risk of developing breast cancer in a study of female military veterans by about half.

About 105,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with colon cancer in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society, and some 56,000 will die from the disease. Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in the U.S.