The wonder drug of the 20th century that’s poised to be the thalidomide of the 21st century is statin cholesterol lowering drugs. Many years ago we saw profoundly negative effects of these drugs on human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in culture. As a result, since then we have been restricting our stem cell patients from taking these drugs. Now a new study just showed why these drugs are bad news for stem cells.
Statin drugs to lower cholesterol are a worldwide phenomenon that bring in about 20 billion USD a year. The data on whether statin drugs have a clinically meaningful impact on reducing heart attacks is pretty weak, relying on marketing metrics that try to convince doctors that a percentage of a percentage reduction in cardiac events is important. Despite the statistical slight of hand that helps promote the drugs, many physicians believe that it’s their ethical duty to assure that most middle aged souls in their practice take these drugs.
Way back in 2007, we began to notice that our orthopedic patients undergoing cultured MSC therapy who were on a statin drug were experiencing culture failures. This meant that while the stem cells of most patients would easily grow in culture to bigger numbers, the stem cells of patients on statin drugs would die out before they could propagate. When we brought those same patients back and took them off the statin drug, their cells would grow fine. As a result, we have restricted our patients from taking these drugs every since. Other cell therapy providers without a sophisticated research lab have kept patients on these drugs.
A recent study may explain why we saw these nasty statin effects on stem cells. The researchers were interested in the fact that macrophages, which are responsible for the artery plaque rupture that leads to heart attacks, were less likely to be created by MSCs in the presence of statins. Since less macrophages could mean less plaque ruptures, this could be a potentially good thing to prevent heart disease. However, what other effects do statin drugs have on MSCs? Regrettably the researchers also found that the drugs hurt the mesenchymal stem cells so that they could no longer differentiate into bone and cartilage cells. Statin drugs also increased the aging and death rate of MSCs and reduced DNA repair abilities of the stem cells! Basically, statin drugs were stem cell poison.
The upshot? It’s pretty clear to us now why we observed the effects we did and that it helps our patients that we have a state of the art research facility so that they can benefit from what we learn. This is also a vindication for MIT professor Stephanie Senef, who has warned for years that statins were the next major Pharma drug public health disaster. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for Pharma to mobilize their university professors on the dole to try and discredit this work, as any research that cuts into a 20 billion dollar product can be easily tarnished. However, for patients, don’t get fooled into taking these drugs! Statins hurt stem cells and you have better heart attack risk reduction from eating blueberries! For doctors using stem cells to treat patients-get the memo and take your patients off of statins!