Inside Tulane Med: Quarterly News from the Tulane University School of Medicine

Study shows statins may
be double-edged sword

A new Tulane University study explains how the same process that helps cholesterol-lowering statins fight heart disease can also prematurely age stem cells, potentially unmasking a hidden culprit behind adverse side effects, such as memory loss, muscle problems and increased risk for diabetes.

The research was published online in the American Journal of Physiology – Cell Physiology.

"The study shows the link between the positive effects of statins on cardiovascular events, but it also may explain the incidence of adverse side effects," said senior author Dr. Eckhard Alt, director of cardiovascular research for the Tulane Heart and Vascular Institute.

The study examined the impact of clinical doses of two popular statins on blood and tissue samples from adult donors in different age groups. Researchers extracted stem cells within the samples to see how the drugs affected their development into macrophages, immune cells that play a critical role in the formation and breakdown of artery-clogging plaque that is a hallmark of heart disease.

Researchers found that statins prevented stem cells from turning into macrophages, which can decrease inflammation and improve plaque stability in patients with cardiovascular disease. However, statins also prevented the stem cells from becoming beneficial bone and cartilage cells. Statins also increased stem cell aging and death rates, reducing their DNA repair abilities. The effect was more pronounced in the samples from older donors, the age group most likely to use statins.

"Statins significantly diminish the ability of stem cells to grow and differentiate into new adult body cells," Alt said. "For example, in the brain, the lack of new nerve cells could result in memory loss and forgetfulness; in joints, the lack of cartilage renewal could lead to the clinical symptoms of osteoarthritis."

Patients should carefully evaluate the benefits and risks associated with statins as they discuss heart disease prevention with their doctors, Alt said.

The study authors also include Tulane researchers Reza Izadpanah, Deborah Schächtele, Andreas Pfnür, Dong Lin, Douglas Slakey and Philip Kadowitz.

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