New research indicates that cholesterol-lowering statins can help prevent heart attacks and strokes in all patients at risk from heart disease, even if their cholesterol levels are not significantly elevated at the time of therapy.

Data from a prospective meta-analysis of data from 90,056 subjects taking part in 14 randomised trials with this class of drugs, published in the online version of The Lancet, has revealed that statin therapy can reduce the five-year incidence of major coronary events and stroke by around one fifth per unit reduction in cholesterol, irrespective of a person's pre-treatment cholesterol level.

This suggests that a much wider range of patients could benefit from early use of this group of agents, which are usually only recommended to people with high cholesterol.

The study authors conclude that: "Ensuring that patients at high five-year risk of any type of occlusive major vascular event achieve and maintain a substantial reduction in LDL cholesterol would result in major clinical and public health benefits."

Early-use of statins, which includes the world’s top-selling medicine - Pfizer’s $11 billion-a-year Lipitor (atorvastatin) [[15/09/05d]] - would substantially boost these agents’ already heavyweight sales.

Results from the study have also gone some way to allaying fears of the safety of statins, having revealed no increase in the risk of developing cancer or other diseases. This should help lift turnover of AstraZeneca’s Crestor (rosuvastatin), after what chief executive Sir Tom McKillop deemed “unfounded challenges” surrounding its safety [[28/01/05b]].