A Wonder Drug Faces Its Test

By Maia Weinstock
Nov 1, 2001 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:49 AM


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Statins, a group of medications developed to reduce blood cholesterol, show promise as cures for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain cancers. A recent study found that people taking statins are 70 percent less likely to develop signs of Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. Small wonder that many news stories are touting statins as wonder drugs.

Not so fast, say researchers. The bulk of these rosy claims comes from observational studies, which base their conclusions on data collected to test for factors other than the effect of statins on those specific diseases. "Placebo-controlled trials are really what needs to be done before you can be sure of statins' effects," says Doug Bauer, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of California at San Francisco. Others note that statins have been tested on only a small part of the population. "They are wonder drugs for middle-aged men with distinct heart problems," says Beatrice Golomb, a medical researcher at the University of California at San Diego. But the recent recall of Baycol, a widely prescribed statin, shows that doctors are still learning about the drugs' side effects.

Nobody understands how statins may perform their alleged cures. "People really need to do some basic work to figure out what the mechanism here is," Bauer says. Yet the potential is huge, both in its medical and economic implications. If a single dose of statins could replace specialized medications for two or three different ailments, drug costs for the average American might plummet. And that would be a wonder.

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