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Cholesterol drug and radiation combo could halt recurrence of aggressive breast cancer

Patients with a particularly stubborn type of breast cancer could potentially benefit by supplementing radiation treatments with a generic, low-cost medication commonly prescribed to treat high cholesterol, according to a new study released today in Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

“Our study showed for the first time that simvastatin combined with radiation improved the local recurrence-free survival rate of women with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), an aggressive variant of breast cancer with a dismal prognosis,” said principal investigator Wendy Woodward, M.D., Ph.D.  Dr. Woodward and Lara Lacerda, PharmD, Ph.D., led the study conducted at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston.
IBC’s propensity to metastasize – that is, spread from one part of the body to another and form secondary tumors — might be due to the migration of surviving cancer stem cells that have developed a resistance to both radiation and chemotherapy. Large retrospective studies from Denmark recently rekindled the interest of the scientific community in how statins affect breast cancer. Statins, which have been used since the 1980s, have a well-described safety and toxicity profile and are commercially available in generic forms. While they are mainly prescribed to treat high cholesterol, they also seem to combat IBC stem cells’ resistance to treatment in several ways, including by inhibiting two proteins key to tumor development.

“Our curiosity was piqued by the Denmark study and we also began looking at statins and found they seemed to improve survival in IBC patients. In this latest study, we took it a step further by examining the medical records of 519 women with stage III IBC who had undergone radiation treatment after mastectomy, comparing those who were taking simvastatin at the time of radiation with those who weren’t,” Dr. Lacerda said.

They learned that only six patients out of 53 (11 percent) who were taking the statin experienced a local recurrence of cancer (the recurrence radiation is given to prevent), compared to 114 of 466 patients (24 percent) in the non-statin using group. In essence, statins appear to make tumors more sensitive to radiation therapy.

“Our data suggest that clinical trials combining simvastatin with radiation therapy for IBC patients should definitely be the next step,” Dr. Woodward said.

“This study suggests a potential new therapeutic strategy to reduce the recurrence of certain breast cancers,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., editor of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and director of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.