Rx for flu: statins?

Studies suggest cholesterol drug could help fight the worst consequences of influenza.

By Anu Partanen, Fortune contributor

Flu vaccines typically work for only one form of a virus, new vaccines take months to develop, and there simply are never enough doses. Could statins help?

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- As drug companies race to develop new vaccines to combat novel forms of influenza, such as the H1N1 swine flu, some medical experts say help might already be here.

The antidote may lie in statins, those cholesterol-lowering superstars of the pharma world.

Statins are among the pharmaceutical industry's most widely prescribed -- and lucrative -- drugs. According to a study by IMS Health, statins were the second-best-selling class of prescription drugs in the U.S last year. (The single best-selling prescription product in the U.S. was Lipitor, Pfizer's anti-cholesterol pill worth $7.8 billion in yearly sales.)

Now scientists are finding statins could do a lot more than help people conquer heart disease.

Why statins? Scientists and researchers are looking at worst-case scenarios to understand how flu affects the body, including situations in which the virus attacks human cells or leads to cases of serious bacterial infection like pneumonia. In each of the disaster scenarios, inflammation -- the very symptom statins seem to alleviate -- occurs.

The new approach to battling influenza, taken up by independent scientists in several countries, is to try to find drugs that help reduce inflammation and modify the ways in which our bodies respond to influenza.

Enter statins.

"Observational studies in humans have shown that if you are taking a statin for heart disease prevention and you should happen to get pneumonia, you cut down your risk of being hospitalized or dying roughly by 50 percent," says Dr. David S. Fedson, a retired University of Virginia professor of medicine who currently works on pandemic prevention as an independent researcher.

Statins fight cholesterol by blocking the action of an enzyme in the liver that participates in the manufacture of cholesterol, but they also seem to restore the balance in a body responding violently to flu.

They are not alone in this: Other medications such as glitazones, used to treat diabetes, might have similar implications, says Dr. Fedson.

How and why the statins do what they seem to do is not yet clear.

"Statins affect everything going on in the body in ways that we don't fully understand, but they work and they are safe. What we want to do with these drugs is similar to turning down the heat under a boiling kettle," Dr. Fedson says.

The studies supporting this theory are not yet nearly conclusive and have shown conflicting results, leaving many in the medical community to doubt the real effects of statins in fighting influenza.

But if they were proven to be effective, the implications for public health could be huge.

The health-care system traditionally has focused on vaccines for fighting the spread of flu. The problem, is that flu vaccines typically work for only one form of a virus, new vaccines take months to develop and there simply are never enough doses to go around for the world population. Statins, however, are cheap and easily produced worldwide. On the other hand, since statins are generic, big drug companies may be less motivated to spend money on research into potential new uses for them.

AstraZeneca (AZN), Teva (TEVA), Novartis (NVS), Merck (MRK, Fortune 500) and Pfizer (PFE, Fortune 500) declined comment or didn't return calls seeking comment.

Of course, not every health professional is convinced statins are the answer to the flu problem. "To be honest, they have tried statins in everything, in cancer, in Alzheimer's, you name it," says Les Funtleyder, a health care strategist at Miller Tabak and an author of Healthcare Investing. "You can put me into the skeptics camp."

Still, independent researchers continue to look at the ways statins can alleviate flu epidemics. If they're right, folks taking statins for their high cholesterol may have the drug to thank if they also happen to avoid the worst consequences of the flu. To top of page

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