London: Inexpensive statins that lower cholesterol could treat cancer after scientists discovered a new genetic link between high cholesterol levels and the fatal disease.
It means that statins, a cheap and effective drug already taken by millions every day to stave off heart attacks and strokes, could play a major role in slashing cancer risk.
Patients could be given the drugs both to protect against getting cancer and to help treat tumours if they develop, the `Daily Express` reported.
The new link between cholesterol and cancer was discovered by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Centre in New York.
They have found that a gene which keeps cholesterol levels low also acts as a barrier, preventing tumours from forming or growing.
The finding supports several recent studies that suggest people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs appear to have a reduced risk of cancer.
Researchers have also shown that people with the highest levels of cholesterol seem to have an increased risk of developing the disease.
Despite this, a genetic link between the two has not been found until now.
"Scientifically it is very satisfying to have data that supports long-standing ideas about cholesterol in the context of cancer," senior author Professor Hartmut Land, of the Department of Biomedical Genetics, said.
"Our paper provides a rationale for cholesterol targeting as a potentially fruitful approach to cancer intervention or prevention strategies," Land said.
Although the pills have some debilitating side effects, most doctors now agree that the benefits of taking them far outweigh any risks.
Statins have been hailed as a wonder drug for reducing cholesterol, the harmful fat-like substance that furs up arteries, triggering tens of thousands of heart attacks and strokes that kill 150,000 people in Britain every year.
At least eight million adults already take statins to reduce their levels of artery-clogging "bad" cholesterol, saving around 10,000 lives a year.
The finding was published in the journal `Cell`.