CHOLESTEROL-lowering statins are being advanced by experts as a possible new weapon in the fight against breast cancer.

The move comes after a study of more than 600,000 British women found that the risk of contracting the disease was almost doubled in those with abnormally high levels of blood fats.

There is not yet conclusive proof that cholesterol helps trigger breast cancer, but the finding has been described as exciting by experts.

Loading article content

But the latest research opens up the possibility of statins, the most commonly prescribed medicine in the UK, becoming an important tool in the fight against the cancer which claims the lives of 1000 women every year in Scotland.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of the disease, with some 4,500 new cases every year north of the Border.

The findings, presented at a European Society of Cardiology meeting in Barcelona by cardiologist Rahul Potluri, were welcomed by charities, although more research is needed to determine whether a definite link can be established.

Dr Potluri, from Aston University in Birmingham, led an examination of 664,159 female patient records. The analysis suggested women with hyperlipidaemia, meaning their blood contained abnormally high levels of cholesterol, were 1.64 times more likely to develop breast cancer.

Dr Potluri said: "This was an observational study so we can't conclude that high cholesterol causes breast cancer, but the strength of this association warrants further investigation."

The next step is likely to be a prospective study that monitors the risk of breast cancer in women with and without high cholesterol. If the connection is validated, research would then take place to establish whether risk is lessened in women who take statins.

Dr Potluri added: "Caution is needed when interpreting our results because while we had a large study population, our analysis was retrospective and observational with inherent limitations. That said, the findings are exciting and further research in this field may have a big impact on patients several years down the line.

"Statins are cheap, widely available and relatively safe. We are potentially heading towards a clinical trial in 10 to 15 years to test the effect of statins on the incidence of breast cancer. If such a trial is successful, statins may have a role in the prevention of breast cancer, especially in high-risk groups, such as women with high cholesterol."

The research follows a US study last year, which found a cholesterol product called 27HC fuelled human breast tumours in genetically engineered laboratory mice. Scientists also discovered higher levels of 27HC in both healthy breast tissue and tumour cells in women with breast cancer.

Previous research has shown a clear association between obesity and breast cancer in post- menopausal women. Last month, a study suggested eating a large amount of red meat in early adulthood could be associated with an increased risk of developing the disease.

James Jopling, director for Scotland at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said the study had reflected the fact that breast cancer was a "complex disease" which is still not fully understood.

He added: "It's still too early to say whether lowering cholesterol through the use of statins can reduce the risk of breast cancer but this study is promising in that it may point us towards an important future development in our understanding of the disease.

"We already know there are things women can do to help reduce their risk, such as maintaining a healthy weight, limiting the amount of alcohol they drink and leading an active lifestyle."