Aspirin, a.k.a acetylsalicid acid, is clearly the wonder drug of all times. Initially developed as an analgesic (pain reliever) and anti-pyretic (anti-fever) more than a hundred years ago, these little tablets have since been discovered to have other pharmacologic use such as blood-thinning and prophylactic treatment of cardiovascular diseases.
Recent studies indicate that aspirin may also have some anti-cancer properties. Researchers from Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School looked at the effect of aspirin therapy on patients with colorectal cancer. The studies were part of the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS), involving 1279 patients and 12 years of follow up. The results showed that cancer patients who took aspirin regularly have a 29% lower risk of dying from the cancer and 21% less overall mortality risk compared to patients who didn’t.
The anti-cancer properties of aspirin are not clearly understood but researchers believe that the drug inhibits the behaviour of the COX-2 enzyme which is associated with cell growth and inflammation. Overexpression of COX-2 leads to tumor development and 85% of colorectal cancer cases exhibit elevated COX-2 levels.
The beneficial effects of aspirin are especially evident in patients who did not take aspirin before cancer diagnosis and those with colorectal cancer associated with COX-2 overexpression.
According to Dr. Durado Brooks, director of colon and prostate cancer prevention programs for the American Cancer Society (ACS)
“This study found aspirin may be helpful as a treatment for some colorectal cancer patients. While the findings are encouraging, this is just one study and it wasn’t randomized. We’re awaiting confirmation from other studies before we change our recommendations to the public.”
The result, though not conclusive, is an exciting development as current cancer therapies are very expensive and come with serious side effects.
Aspirin may potentially be a cheaper and better tolerated alternative for the treatment of colorectal cancer.
Not that aspirin is completely safe. It does come with side effects, especially major gastrointestinal irritation and bleeding. Patients are therefore advised to consult their doctor before taking aspirin.