THURSDAY, Jan. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Popular cholesterol-lowering statins may also lower risk for liver cancer among people with hepatitis B, a new study shows. Hepatitis B, an inflammation of the liver due to the hepatitis B virus, is one of the main causes of liver cancer.

This is not the first time that statins have shown promise in reducing risk for cancer. Other studies have hinted that these drugs may play a role in preventing certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.

In the new study of more than 33,000 individuals with hepatitis B followed from 1997 to 2008, those who took a statin were less likely to develop liver cancer, when compared to participants who were not prescribed statins. What's more, the longer a person took statins, the greater the liver-cancer risk reduction. Study participants were prescribed the statins to treat high cholesterol levels. Overall, 1,021 people developed liver cancer during the study period.

More research is needed to see how statins may lower liver cancer risk among people with hepatitis B, the researchers said.

"Statins have potential protective effects against cancers [and] carriers of hepatitis B virus infection have a substantial risk of [liver] carcinoma," said Dr. Pau-Chung Chen, a professor of environmental medicine and epidemiology at National Taiwan University, in Taipei. "Statin use is not only a benefit to preventing cardiovascular diseases, but also an additional, convenient and acceptable strategy for preventing hepatocellular carcinoma," or liver cancer, Chen said.

However, statins can cause a potentially dangerous rise in liver enzymes and liver damage. Regular liver function tests are required for all people who take statins.

The study appeared online Jan. 23 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

"This is exciting and unequivocally solid research," said Dr. Eugene Schiff, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

"One of the issues is that statins are relatively contraindicated in people with liver disease," Schiff said. But "the take-home message for people with hepatitis B or anybody with liver disease is that statins are safe. This re-emphasizes the point that if someone has chronic hepatitis B and there is an indication for statins, they should get them and they may be beneficial far beyond lowering cholesterol: They may also reduce their risk for liver cancer."

Dr. David Bernstein, chief of hepatology at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Manhasset, N.Y., is more cautious. "In almost all other liver conditions, cirrhosis must be present before [liver cancer] develops," he said. During cirrhosis, scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue. "Statins must be used with caution in patients with cirrhosis, which can limit their use in patients with liver disease at risk of developing liver cancer," he said. "Further studies are needed in this patient population to confirm these findings."

More information

For information on hepatitis B, visit the U.S. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.