Can statin drugs prevent breast cancer? New research out of the Duke Cancer Institute has found a byproduct of cholesterol fuels the growth and spread of the most common types of breast cancers — a finding that suggests statins may diminish the effect of this estrogen-like molecule.
The findings, published in the journal Science, are preliminary, using studies of mice and tumor cells. But they are the first to explain the link between obesity, high cholesterol, and breast cancer, especially in post-menopausal women.
The Duke researchers also suggested that dietary changes or therapies to reduce cholesterol may offer a simple way to reduce breast cancer risk.
"A lot of studies have shown a connection between obesity and breast cancer, and specifically that elevated cholesterol is associated with breast cancer risk, but no mechanism has been identified," said senior author Donald McDonnell, chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke.
"What we have now found is a molecule — not cholesterol itself, but an abundant metabolite of cholesterol — called 27HC that mimics the hormone estrogen and can independently drive the growth of breast cancer."
Estrogen feeds about 75 percent of all breast cancers. For the new study, McDonnell and colleagues found 27HC functions like estrogen in fueling breast tumor growth, as well as the aggressiveness of the cancer to spread to other organs. They also noted anti-estrogens countered the effects of 27HC.
"This is a very significant finding," McDonnell said, noting efforts to keep cholesterol in check, either with statins or a healthy diet, may reduce the risk of breast cancer. Additionally, for women who have breast cancer and high cholesterol, taking statins may delay or prevent resistance to endocrine therapies such as tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors.
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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