Mutations in a single gene could be used to identify breast cancer tumours that can be tackled with cholesterol-lowering statins, a recent study has found. Scientists identified a link between a cholesterol-building mechanism in the body and disorganised cell growth indicative of cancer.
'The data raises the possibility that we might identify subsets of patients whose tumours may respond to statins', says lead author Dr Carol Prives of Columbia University, USA. 'Of course we can't make any definitive conclusions until we know more'.
The research centres on the p53 gene, which usually suppresses the growth of cancerous cells. However, according to the study published in Cell, its mutated form, found in more than half of human cancer cells, promotes aggressive cancerous growth.
The researchers studied the growth of cancer cells in an artificial three-dimensional culture model that structurally resembled the human breast to investigate how the mutated p53 works.
Cells carrying the mutation grew in a disorganised and invasive manner, but when mutation levels were lowered, the cell cultures grew more normally.
Further studies, led by first author Dr William Freed-Pastor, found that when cells with mutated p53 were treated with cholesterol-lowering statins, they stopped their disorganised and invasive growth, and in some cases the cells died.
Analysis of patients' breast cancer tissue confirmed that a mutation in p53 and elevated cholesterol-building activity tend to go together in human tumours.
Dr Prives emphasised that there is still much more work to be done. 'It is what it is. There are great implications, but nothing clinical yet. Perhaps one could do a clinical trial, and that may support these findings, or it may be more complicated'.
Dr Joanna Owens, from charity Cancer Research UK, cautioned that the 'p53 protein is faulty in many types of cancer, but these faults can have several different effects alongside those studied in this research. These are laboratory findings and, as the researchers themselves point out, there's a long way to go to find out if they apply to patients'.
The Telegraph reports that while two other studies have suggested statins could treat cancer, they were observational and couldn't prove causality or suggest a reason for the apparent reduction in cancer.