HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and the malignant cell: the statin family of drugs as triggers of tumor-specific apoptosis

Leukemia. 2002 Apr;16(4):508-19. doi: 10.1038/sj.leu.2402476.


The statin family of drugs target HMG-CoA reductase, the rate-limiting enzyme of the mevalonate pathway, and have been used successfully in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia for the past 15 years. Experimental evidence suggests this key biochemical pathway holds an important role in the carcinogenic process. Moreover, statin administration in vivo can provide an oncoprotective effect. Indeed, in vitro studies have shown the statins can trigger cells of certain tumor types, such as acute myelogenous leukemia, to undergo apoptosis in a sensitive and specific manner. Mechanistic studies show bcl-2 expression is down-regulated in transformed cells undergoing apoptosis in response to statin exposure. In addition, the apoptotic response is in part due to the depletion of the downstream product geranylgeranyl pyrophosphate, but not farnesyl pyrophosphate or other products of the mevalonate pathway including cholesterol. Clinically, preliminary phase I clinical trials have shown the achievable plasma concentration corresponds to the dose range that can trigger apoptosis of tumor types in vitro. Moreover, little toxicity was evident in vivo even at high concentrations. Clearly, additional clinical trials are warranted to further assess the safety and efficacy of statins as novel and immediately available anti-cancer agents. In this article, the experimental evidence supporting a role for the statin family of drugs to this new application will be reviewed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA Reductase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Neoplasms / pathology


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Hydroxymethylglutaryl-CoA Reductase Inhibitors