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Medicine is always on the look out for a wonder drug that can miraculously tackle anything it's put up against

Medicine is always on the look out for a wonder drug that can miraculously tackle anything it's put up against. Take aspirin, for instance, a painkiller that became the cure all of the century, with claims that it could prevent heart problems and a range of other conditions. Even thalidomide, the Richard Nixon of the drugs world, is coming back in from the cold as a miracle worker.

The latest candidates for universal invincibility are the statins, originally designed to lower cholesterol levels, and one of the most prescribed family of drugs in the world.

Several doctors have postulated that statins can help treat osteoporosis in women (Lancet, 2000; 355: 2185-8), while another group maintains that statins can reduce the risks of stroke in patients with heart disease (N Engl J Med, 2000; 343: 317-26). Heart patients may also benefit from statins because the drug can help promote the growth of new blood vessels, a team from the St Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston has found (Nature Med, 2000; 6: 1004-10).

These findings are controversial, and they haven't met with approval from all quarters one doctor has argued that if the statins really could help the growth of blood vessels, they would also cause malignancies.

There's certainly no indication that they do that, but there's plenty else the statins can cause, judging by the side effects of one, Zocor 80 (simvastatin). Common reactions include abdominal pain, constipation, flatulence and headache. Less common are nausea, rash, alopecia, dizziness, muscle cramps, myalgia, vomiting and anaemia.

Of course, Zocor's manufacturer points out, the important thing is to change your diet if you want to reduce cholesterol levels. Trouble is, being that responsible is at the other end of the spectrum from the miracle cure all that medicine, and its patients, seem to crave.

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