People who take statins to lower cholesterol are less likely to develop pancreatic cancer, according to a study from the University of California.

London – Cholesterol-busting drugs taken by millions to keep their heart healthy could also help to keep cancer at bay.

Scientists say that statins, the most widely-prescribed drugs in the UK, can stop cancer from spreading around the body.

This is important because most of the 160 000 Britons who are killed by cancer each year die after it spreads to other organs.

With some statins costing less than 3p (50c) a tablet, the University of Pittsburgh researchers said the pills ‘appear to be a promising, cost-effective’ way of reducing cancer spread.

Statins are taken by eight million Britons and are credited with saving thousands of lives a year by lowering cholesterol and preventing heart attacks and strokes.

With cancer cells needing cholesterol to break off from the original tumour and metastasise – or spread around the body – statins could block the process.

The US scientists showed that statins are effective against cells very similar to those behind the deadly spread of cancer.

Test-tube experiments also showed statins to work better against some cancer cells than others.

This could allow doctors to focus the treatment on the right patients, according to the journal Scientific Reports.

Researcher Zoltan Oltvai said: ‘While statins probably aren’t going to be effective against a patient’s primary tumour, they could work to block the tumour’s ability to metastasise.

‘And that is very important because most cancer patients die of the metastases.’

He added that the solution may be to give statins alongside treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. However, he stressed that much more work is needed and said that people should not start dosing themselves with statins as an anti-cancer drug.

Other recent research has shown that statins might be able to help stop prostate cancer spreading to the bones.

And in 2012, a Danish study found that people using statins at the time of diagnosis with cancer were 15 per cent less likely to die of the disease – or any other cause at any given point – than patients not taking them.

However, other research has suggested that terminally ill people live longer if they stop taking statins.