Pancreatitis is an extremely debilitating condition. In its acute form, it often requires hospitalization and lengthy recovery; it can also be fatal. Chronic pancreatitis is progressive, causing severe chronic pain, nausea, fatigue, and a host of other issues, significantly impacting quality of life. And so far there has been no medication to treat the disease — leaving patients and their doctors with few good options other than risky and invasive surgery.
Recent research has raised hope that a common class of medicines used to treat cholesterol, statins, may be effective to treat pancreatitis. A study published this month in Gut (a leading gastroenterology journal) suggests that simvastatin, a popular statin sold under the brand name “Zocor,” was associated with a reduced risk of acute pancreatitis. The same result held true for atorvastatin, which is sold under the brand “Lipitor”. (You can find an abstract of the study here.)
Another study published in 2011 in the journal Laboratory Investigation involving rats (and not humans) found that a different statin, prevastatin, reduces the progression of inflammation, fibrosis and loss of exocrine function in chronic pancreatitis. The study’s authors conclude that “These results support the clinical use of pravastatin for patients with chronic pancreatitis.” You can find an abstract of the study here and a the full text here.
Together these studies certainly raise the possibility that statins may reduce the risk or severity of pancreatitis, or possibly both. There has not yet been a clinical trial testing these hypotheses — the Gut study published this month was a “retrospective cohort study,” meaning that it examined past data from a patient population rather than testing a possible intervention prospectively on current patients. I have heard through the grapevine that at least one top hospital is seeking funding for such a trial; hopefully they will be successful soon.
However, while statins are not approved to treat or prevent pancreatitis, doctors are still able to prescribe them for that purpose. This is called an “off-label use,” and it is both legal and common (you can read a WebMD article on the practice here). Moreover, since statins are among the most prescribed drugs in the U.S., they are widely accepted and their side effects fairly well understood…making it a relatively low-risk experiment. (The most common side effects are muscle pains, though statins can also put strain on your liver — see the Mayo Clinic’s primer on statins here.)
This is a very exciting possibility for those of us suffering from pancreatitis, with few good options on the horizon. (For information on Sun-101, another drug in development that could be used for chronic pancreatitis, visit this post.) At this point we have grounds for cautious optimism…well worth a discussion with your doctor.