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Could Taking a Statin Prevent Ovarian Cancer? Leading Doctors Weigh In On Promising New Evidence

Published May 20, 2019

Alex Buxton

Women who’ve heard about the new Harvard study which found that the class of drugs known as statins may help prevent ovarian cancer should proceed with caution, according to specialists who spoke to SurvivorNet.

More than 50 women were found to have a decreased risk of developing ovarian cancer if they were taking a statin according to a recent study out of Harvard Medical School. It’s promising news for researchers battling ovarian cancer, which has proven challenging to treat.

Statins are typically prescribed for people who have high cholesterol or who have had or are at risk for developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease – and they’re really widely used in the United States. A National Health and Nutrition Examination survey in 2011 and 2012 estimated that 38.6 million Americans were using statins at the time.

Even though statins are widely used to lower blood cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, this isn’t the first time they’ve been looked at in relation to cancer. Because of cholesterol’s role in the body, recently doctors have been looking into what role the drugs could play in cancer prevention and treatment. But, according to study authors, this is the first “population-based case-control study to report a reduced risk for epithelial ovarian cancer (EOC), along with its major histologic subtypes, associated with statin use.”

The Harvard study looked at 2,040 women with EOC and 2,1000 women who didn’t have cancer. Researchers found that the risk of developing ovarian cancer was 32% lower for statin users. The reduction in ovarian cancer risk was most apparent in women who had taken a statin for 2 to more than 4 years.

Unlike some other cancers, little is known about what can be done to prevent ovarian cancer aside from a full hysterectomy, or taking oral contraceptives or having children to reduce risk. These might not be realistic options for many women, so if something as simple as taking a statin might reduce risk then that could be very exciting.

Dr Dana Chase from Arizona Oncology points out, “In some cancers there are very effective prevention strategies such as avoiding tobacco use to prevent lung cancer or HPV vaccination to eliminate cervical cancer risk.  Unfortunately, we have not been so lucky with ovarian cancer as there are few known ways to prevent ovarian cancer without having surgery.  Certainly if you have a known inherited risk for ovarian cancer, such as a mutation in the BRCA gene, we know that removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes will reduce your risk entirely.  However the majority of patients with ovarian cancer do not have the inherited BRCA mutation, thus scientists have been working hard to identify lifestyle or health behavior modifications that could lead to a reduced ovarian cancer risk.”

While a result like this is garnering attention, and might point towards where further research should be done, there’s still a long way to go to prevent ovarian cancer.

“This is an exciting finding but still should be interpreted with caution. ” Dr Amanika Kumar of the Mayo Clinic told SurvivorNet. “These observational data suggest a relationship, but the biologic mechanism and causation is certainly not clear at this point.  These data suggest we should continue to investigate this important area.  Prevention of ovarian cancer is key to decreased morbidity and mortality in this disease, particularly because ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed at a late stage.  Improved understanding of carcinogenesis and risk factors for developing and preventing ovarian cancer is a critical area of research.”

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Originally from the UK, Alex is a television documentary producer and journalist. Over the years he's worked on documentaries for a variety of broadcasters and publishers including Netflix, CNN and The Economist. He also produces SurvivorNet's video content. Read More