Liver cancer is hard to treat. It’s a top-five cause of cancer-related death worldwide and a growing cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Since liver cancer is often found at a late stage, when treatment has limited benefit, there has been increasing interest in prevention. That’s where statin medications might come in.
Liver cancer is usually caused by chronic liver disease, so an important way to prevent liver cancer is to treat the underlying trigger. For example, curing hepatitis C infection — an important cause of chronic liver disease — reduces the risk of liver cancer. However, if the liver disease has progressed to an advanced stage, the risk of liver cancer remains high even after removing the underlying cause.
Statins and liver disease: what’s the connection?
Statin medications are widely known to lower cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. When statins first came on the market, there was great concern that statins might injure the liver. It turns out that not only are significant side effects rare, but statin medications are likely beneficial for the liver. In fact, research has shown that for people with liver disease, statins are associated with a reduced risk of liver failure, liver cancer, and death (see this study, this study, and this study).
It turns out that some statins may be better at preventing liver cancer than others. Specifically, lipophilic statins (those that dissolve more readily in lipids such as oils and fats) may be more effective for preventing liver cancer than hydrophilic statins (those that dissolve more readily in water). This suspected difference is supported by observations that lipophilic statins can more easily get into diseased liver cells, passing readily through cell walls, which are made mostly from lipids. Once inside cells, lipophilic statins may do a better job interfering with cancer formation.
Lipophilic statins include atorvastatin (Lipitor), simvastatin (Zocor), Fluvastatin (Lescol), and lovastatin (Altoprev). Hydrophilic statins include pravastatin (Pravachol) and rosuvastatin (Crestor).
Study links lipophilic statins to reduced risk of liver cancer
A recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine took a closer look at the effect of different statin types on liver cancer risk. In the largest and most comprehensive study on the topic to date, the study researchers examined liver cancer risk over 10 years in a group of more than 16,000 adults with viral hepatitis (a possible cause of chronic liver disease). Based on records from the Swedish national registry, their results demonstrate that individuals who too