A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine showed that statins, which are common cholesterol-lowering drugs, were able to prime blood cancer cells to be more easily eliminated.
Leukemia describes blood cancers that begin in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made, and result in the accumulation of many abnormal white blood cells. There are many different types of blood cancers and the most common type is chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), which mostly affects older adults. One federally approved drug in the United States to treat this type of leukemia is venetoclax.
How do anti-cancer drugs work?
Venetoclax promotes cell death in CLL cells by activating specific pathways that normally regulate cell death. Used as a single therapy, this drug has shown positive clinical results and acts as an alternative to harsher treatments such as chemotherapy.
Interestingly, studies have shown that statins have anti-cancer functions against numerous types of cancer cells. Statins inhibit a specific biological pathway to reduce cholesterol production; inhibition of this pathway also leads to decreased production of cancer-promoting proteins. Thus, a group from the University of California wanted to determine whether statins could improve the anti-cancer function of drugs like venetoclax and recently reported their findings in Science Translational Medicine.
Statins can improve the function of venetoclax
First, the authors of the study tested the combination of statins with venetoclax in cancer cell cultures. They observed that the combination of the two drugs killed cancer cells better than either drug alone. They replicated these results in a preclinical animal model of lymphoma. Additional experiments confirmed describes the pathways that were altered that led to greater anti-cancer effects of venetoclax. Last, when studying past clinical studies, they noted that background statin use alongside venetoclax led to more responses to treatment in CLL patients, supporting their experimental findings.
Overall, the data suggest that statins change the biology within CLL cells such that they become more susceptible to venetoclax, a drug used to treat CLL. By reporting the supporting clinical data, the authors make a convincing case for this phenomenon and future studies can build upon this observation to guide clinical practices in treating patients with CLL or blood cancers. As more experimental therapies eventually move into the clinic, it is important to continue investigating the complementary activities of different treatments to improve patient outcomes.
Written by Branson Chen, BHSc
Reference: Lee JS, Roberts A, Juarez D, Vo T-TT, Bhatt S, Herzog L-O, et al. Statins enhance efficacy of venetoclax in blood cancers. Sci Transl Med. 2018 Jun 13;10(445).