8 June 2022

Research scientists, funded by national bowel health charity Bowel Research UK, have discovered that statins, which are commonly used to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, could also be effective as a treatment for some forms of bowel cancer.

The team, led by Dr Sarah Martin at Queen Mary University of London who conducted the research, say statins Lovostatin, Mevastatin and Simvastatin can halt the growth of tumours in some colorectal cancer patients. The findings are published in an article this week in science journal Frontiers in Oncology.

“This is a very exciting development,” said Principal Investigator Dr Sarah Martin from the Centre of Cancer Cell & Molecular Biology at Barts Cancer Institute, QMUL.

“We know that statins are very effective drug in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Previous studies have suggested that they may also have cancer preventative effects. However, no one has so far understood their potential role in reducing specific types of bowel cancer.”

The majority of bowel cancer occurs when the APC gene, which controls how cells grow, mutates and allows cells to grow uncontrollably, leading to the formation of tumours.

The research team at QMUL generated colon cells with an APC mutation and treated them with more than 1,200 tried and tested, FDA-approved drugs.

“What we were trying to find was a drug that specifically killed cells which have an APC mutation.

“We discovered that three of the drugs worked – and all three were statins. They had a huge effect. They killed the tumour cells but had only a minor effect on the normal, healthy cells,” said Dr Martin.

QMUL’s findings could dramatically change the way bowel cancer is treated for some patients.

More than 41,000 people per year are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK. It is the second most prevalent cancer with affects both men and women, and claims the lives of more than 16,000 people per year in the UK.

The only treatment available at the moment is surgery and/or chemotherapy which has serious side-effects because the drugs involved affect all cells indiscriminately.

“If statins could be used to halt the progression of bowel cancer, that would be very good news for patients,” said Dr Martin.

“We know people can take statins for a long time because many have been doing so for blood pressure, for example. By contrast, the chemotherapy drugs required to treat bowel cancer can’t be taken for long periods because of the side-effects.

“If we were able to prescribe statins as an effective treatment for colon cancer, it means patients could probably take them for some time, thus prolonging their life considerably, and their quality of life whilst undergoing treatment would be transformed.

“Statins cannot cure cancer, but we are confident they can reduce the tumour so it does not spread or grow back.”

The next step is to discover which patients might benefit – there are many possible mutations in the APC gene and the team are currently investigating which patients with APC mutations will respond to statins due to low levels of the protein survivin.

“We can screen people quite easily for survivin levels. Then we need to discover why they benefit from statins when others don’t.”

She thanked Bowel Research UK for funding the PhD project by student Hannah Shailes which confirmed the breakthrough. “We are extremely grateful to Bowel Research UK without which this project would not have been possible.”

Interim Chief Executive Officer of Bowel Research UK, Lynn Dunne, congratulated the team on their findings.

“Our funding helps students of today make the major discoveries of tomorrow. The highly promising results of Hannah Shailes’s PhD work on statins and bowel cancer are another fantastic validation of our research funding strategy.”