A new study on Vytorin/Inegy found that in addition to having little proven benefit, it may actually cause an increase in cancers affecting all major areas of the body.
As if it wasn’t bad enough news that cholesterol meds do nothing to decrease cardiovascular events, a new study has found that a popular cholesterol drug may increase the risk of cancer by 50 percent. I reported a few months ago about a study (ironically, industry-funded) that discovered that while statin-based cholesterol medications do, in fact, lower cholesterol, they yield no statistically significant health benefit whatsoever to those without pre-existing heart disease. At that time, I mentioned that at least 13 million in the US alone take statin-based drugs such as Lipitor, in spite of their lack of benefits and the fact that they cause side effects including nausea, trouble swallowing, muscle aches, vertigo, severe neuromuscular degeneration similar to multiple sclerosis, memory loss, trouble talking, and nerve damage.
Now this new study of 1,873 people has found even more incriminating evidence that cholesterol meds belong in the trash and not in the body. The study, out of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, focused on a drug called “Vytorin,” (marketed as “Inegy” in Europe), which is a combination of the statin drug Zocor (simvastatin) and Zetia (ezetimbe), an anti-hyperlipidemic, which blocks the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. According to a report on the study in the New England Journal of Medicine, while Zetia does in fact interfere with cholesterol absorption, it simultaneously blocks the absorption of other molecules, and in so doing, could trigger cancer.
Vytorin has been a widespread choice for many who can’t tolerate standard statin-based cholesterol meds — so widespread, in fact, that sales have hovered around $5 billion annually. The press for Vytorin has touted the fact that it doesn’t cause the side effects so common with pure statin-based medications. Those reduced side effects account for at least some of the drug’s popularity. But according to an article in Forbes, there’s also been no proof it prevents heart attacks or strokes, nor was there any significant trial completed to test whether Vytorin had beneficial effects until three years after it was approved for sale. In fact, at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology this past January, Dr. Harlan Krumholz of Yale University stated that Vytorin might be an “expensive placebo.” His speech drew applause from the cardiologists in attendance.
Now it turns out that Vytorin, in addition to having little proven benefit, may actually have one huge side effect. This latest Vytorin study found an increase in cancers affecting all major areas of the body. In addition, it found that among those who developed cancer, those taking Vytorin had a much higher rate of death than those taking a placebo. As might be expected, doctors are now debating the results of the study — trying to find ways to reinterpret the results more favorably. In the meantime, other large-scale studies are underway to help clarify the issue.
So, why in the world are people still taking Vytorin? Well, according to Forbes and the doctors they interviewed, consumers”came to the doctor’s office convinced by a stunningly effective ad campaign claiming that Zetia or Vytorin was right for them.” Dr. Paul Thompson, who heads cardiology at Hartford Hospital, adds, “People fear statins more than other drugs, even though they seem to be the most beneficial medicines. [They were] reassured to take Vyotrin.” Unfortunately, this blame-the-victim mentality lets the medical community off the hook. Forbes concludes, “Doctors, strapped for time by insurers, didn’t have the time to argue.”
But that still begs the question: why the heck are people taking any of these cholesterol reducing drugs in the first place? Their benefits haven’t been proven, and there’s at least some evidence that they can do terrible harm. Physicians who express concern about Vytorin tend to recommend switching patients over to the more traditional statins like Lipitor–though as I mentioned above, studies have shown that they don’t work either, except in rare instances where there’s a pre-existing heart problem. (See my blog of June 3, 2008, for more about how lowering cholesterol has utterly no benefit in terms of cardiovascular health in spite of all the hype to the contrary.)
The shocker here is that somewhere in the process of approving, marketing, and distributing anti-cholesterol drugs, science has taken a back seat. What we do know is that the benefits are unproven and that side effects are definite — and some serious side effects, such as an increased risk of cancer, appear to be ever more likely. What happened to science? Can you imagine the FDA allowing any alternative health formula with this type of pedigree to remain on the market — and to promote itself with tens of millions of dollars in advertising? Only in an alternate universe!