Friday, December 16, 2011

Anti-cholesterol drugs can reduce flu deaths

Statins are drugs used for their cholesterol-lowering effects. They are prescribed frequently, and make pharmaceutical companies earn billions of dollars. A new study has shown they might even be a bigger cash cow, as they seem to reduce the number of deaths from infection with influenza virus, which causes the flu. While certainly unexpected, it can be a welcome addition in the everlasting fight against flu.
How it works
Scientists from the Oregon Public Health Division looked at more than 3000 patients that were hospitalized with flu, and had a confirmed influenza infection. 33 percent of these patients were given statins, either prior to hospitalization, or during. This was not part of the treatment: they just happened to be on statin treatment, likely because of high levels of cholesterol. After several confounding factors had been excluded, they found that statin treatment made patients twice as less likely to die from influenza infection. That seems quite a dramatic effect for a drug that was designed from something totally different.

Statins are normally used to reduce the levels of bad cholesterol in the body: LDL. They inhibit an enzyme that plays a key role in cholesterol production. The enzyme, dubbed HMG-CoA reductase, does not seem to play a role in the immune system, however. That is why the method of action in reducing influenza deaths remains to be investigated. New drugs are in development that work on a different mechanism, and can be used instead, or in combination with statins, to treat high levels of cholesterol.

The Oregon-based study was just an observational one, and does not provide any clues that explain why statins work the way they do. While that remains to be investigated, it sure is an important discovery in combating the flu. About 20,000 people are hospitalized each year in the US due to complications resulting from influenza infection, and many people die. We might be able to reduce that number now, and we already tested and tried the drug for a long time in human patients, which severely cuts down on the time needed to implement the drug for influenza therapy.

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