How a 40p statin can stop deadly form of blood poisoning
03:51 GMT, 15 January 2013
03:51 GMT, 15 January 2013
Drugs taken by around seven million people in Britain to lower cholesterol could also stop a deadly form of blood poisoning in its tracks.
New research shows that giving statins to patients as soon as they are diagnosed with sepsis may stop the infection progressing to the point where it becomes life-threatening.
In tests, only four per cent of patients with early stage sepsis went on to develop the more severe form after being given a 40mg dose of a statin every day while they were in hospital.
One theory is that their anti-inflammatory properties in statins somehow stop the cascade that results in major organs shutting down
In contrast, 24 per cent of volunteers given a dummy drug went on to get the full-blown poisoning.
The findings suggest the drugs, which cost as little as 40 pence a day, could help to reduce the death toll from a condition that affects around 37,000 people a year in Britain — more than breast and bowel cancer combined — and kills nearly half its victims, many within just a few hours.
Sepsis develops with considerable speed when germs get into the body through wounds in the skin, or infections in the ears, lungs or urinary tract.
As the invading bugs swamp the body, they produce powerful toxins that start to damage the cells.
Some attack the walls of small blood vessels, causing them to leak; this leads to a catastrophic drop in blood pressure, stopping blood circulating to the major organs and causing them to shut down.
Those most affected are usually the very young, sick or elderly, whose immune defences might not be up to fighting off the bacterial invasion.
But even the strong and healthy can be struck down if a particularly potent organism enters their blood.
Doctors treat the deadly condition by using large doses of antibiotics and injecting fluids to bolster blood pressure.
Speed is vital to stop this potentially fatal chain reaction.
However, the condition can be hard to spot, even for experienced health professionals.
Symptoms can include a very high, or low, temperature, racing heart, rapid breathing and slurred speech.
Also, the skin can appear cool, pale or mottled.
The UK Sepsis Trust estimates around 12,500 lives a year could be saved if doctors, nurses and paramedics were better trained to spot the early signs of the condition.
In recent years, small studies have suggested statins may help.
One theory is that their anti-inflammatory properties somehow stop the cascade that results in major organs shutting down.
Another is that they suppress the body’s production of nitric oxide — a chemical that makes blood vessels dilate and blood pressure fall.
It’s possible that statins help ward off the dangerous drop in blood pressure that can lead to death.
In the latest study, doctors from the Heart of England Hospital in Birmingham recruited 100 patients admitted to hospital with the early stages of sepsis.
None of the patients was taking statins for high cholesterol, but half were randomly selected to be given 40mg a day of a commonly-prescribed drug, called atorvastatin, for the duration of their stay, while the rest were given a placebo.
Doctors then monitored how many went on to develop severe sepsis.
They were given the drugs every day until they recovered — up to a maximum of 28 days.
The results, published in the journal Critical Care, showed two of the 49 patients given statins became seriously ill and died.
In the placebo group, 12 became severely ill and two died.
In a report on their findings, the researchers said: ‘Statins may prevent the progression of sepsis. Further trials are needed to verify these findings.’
Ron Daniels, chief executive of the Sepsis Trust, said the statins discovery was ‘an important piece of research’.
He added: ‘If health professionals can identify sepsis early, then this treatment may help prevent the transition to severe sepsis where organs begin to fail.’
New research on statins has found they may also help reduce the risk of brain damage caused by sepsis.
The condition can trigger long-lasting effects with memory and concentration, due to the combined effect of inflammation in the brain, and lack of blood supply due to plummeting blood pressure.
Older patients are particularly at risk.
In an early stage study, researchers at the University of Utah found that the statin lovastatin reduced the risk of cognitive impairment.
The team believe this is due to the anti-inflammatory effect, and are now planning larger trials.