Canakinumab, an anti-inflammatory, was used in a trial involving more than 10,000 patients, all of whom have had a heart attack but had not been diagnosed with cancer.
They were treated with the drug, which is given by injection, once every three months and monitored for up to four years.
The study showed a 15% reduction in the risk of heart attacks and strokes and the number of cancer deaths cut by half.
One of the researchers, Dr Paul Ridker of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said the findings have “far-reaching implications”.
He said: “For the first time, we’ve been able to definitively show that lowering inflammation independent of cholesterol reduces cardiovascular risk.
“It tells us that by leveraging an entirely new way to treat patients – targeting inflammation – we may be able to significantly improve outcomes for certain very high-risk populations.”
The benefits seen in the patients were “above and beyond” those seen in patients who just took statins, the hospital said.
Dr Ridker said: “In my lifetime, I’ve gotten to see three broad eras of preventative cardiology.
“In the first, we recognised the importance of diet, exercise and smoking cessation. In the second, we saw the tremendous value of lipid-lowering drugs such as statins. Now, we’re cracking the door open on the third era.
“This is very exciting.”
Regarding the cancer findings, Dr Ridker said more research was needed but there was the “possibility of slowing the progression of certain cancers”.
Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, said: “Although this trial provides compelling evidence that targeting inflammation has efficacy in preventing recurrent cardiovascular events, we look forward to findings from additional trials, such as the NHLBI-funded Cardiovascular Inflammation Reduction Trial, to further refine the best therapeutic strategies for preventing cardiovascular disease.”
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