Cholesterol lowering drug linked to increased risk of infection

Millions of Americans take cholesterol lowering drugs known as statins. But a new study by Italian researchers suggests that at least one of those drugs – simvastatin, sold under the brand name Zocor by Merck & Co. and now available as a generic – lower the body’s ability to fight infections.

The researchers studied the impact of simvastatin on human cells and in mice. They said that the drug reduces the ability of immune cells called macrophages to destroy certain bacteria and then increases the body’s production of cytokines, molecules that cause inflammation.

"Statins are key drugs in the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease," said Cosima T. Baldari, Ph.D., a scientist from the University of Siena in Italy, who is  the study’s senior author. "Our understanding of how these drugs affect the immune system should help maximize the benefits of these excellent drugs."

Cholesterol lowering medications were the second only to antipsychotics in U.S. with sales of $14.5 billion on 201.7 million prescriptions filled in 2008, according to IMS Health. That year Americans filled 66.7 million prescriptions of simvastatin, which went generic two years earlier in 2006.

A recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet found thatstatins raise the risk of diabetes by 9 percent.Some experts are concerned that the drugs are overprescribed and that many doctors, often at their patients urging, reach for the prescription pad before trying other approaches - such as diet and exercise - to get elevated cholesterol under control. Statins have been shown to benefit patients who have heart disease or have had a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack - so-called secondary prevention. It is less clear if statins prevent heart attacks and other problems in people who have high cholesterol but no known cardiac disease.