Aspirin adds cancer to its success list
April 13 2003
Aspirin, the mild painkiller which has been used against rheumatoid arthritis, strokes and heart attacks, may help women beat breast cancer, new research has shown.
Research already suggests the drug may help prevent bowel, pancreatic and lung cancer, and a team in Italy has reported that taking regular doses for five years or more can cut the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and oesophagus by two thirds.
Last week the drug's superstar status was confirmed by a US study of more than 80,000 women which concluded that regular use of aspirin and ibuprofen can hinder the formation and growth of breast cancer, cutting the risk by up to half.
Aspirin must now count as one of the greatest finds in medical history.
About 50,000 tonnes of aspirin are now made annually. After this week's headlines, that amount looks likely to grow further.
The new findings emerge from the Women's Health Initiative, a US government study started more than a decade ago to track diseases such as cancer.
The data reveal that taking two or more tablets of aspirin and other so-called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs a week has a significant effect in reducing the risk of breast cancer.
Most of the women were taking aspirin and ibuprofen for arthritis, muscle pain or headaches. Regular use of the drugs for five to nine years reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by 21 per cent, according to Professor Randall Harris of Ohio State University and his team.
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But the mechanisms remain unclear.
In one study that may help explain why, Dr. David Frank of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues noted that colon cancer cells have abnormally high levels of an immune system protein called interleukin-6 or IL-6.
Frank's team treated colon cancer cells in the laboratory with NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, aspirin and sulindac. They also tested butyrate, a compound produced when the body breaks down dietary fiber.
They found that IL-6 in turn activates another protein called STAT1, which shuts down a process called cell suicide. Cells are programmed to self-destruct when they become abnormal, as in cancer, but STAT1 interferes with this process. The cells become immortal, starting the out-of-control proliferation that results in a tumor.
The painkillers stop IL-6 from activating STAT1, Franks' team found. Butyrate also blocks IL-6, but through a different mechanism, they found.
They were scheduled to present their findings to an annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research in Toronto this week, but the meeting was canceled because of fears about an outbreak of a new virus causing severe acute respiratory syndrome.
The next step is to find more direct ways to block the STAT1 protein in patients who have already developed cancer, Frank said.
In a second study that was to be presented at AACR, a team at Ohio State University said they found that women who took the painkillers regularly had a lower risk of breast cancer.
"These results suggest that even women at high risk for breast cancer may be protected by taking NSAIDs," said Dr. Randall Harris, who led the study.
But more research is needed before doctors start telling women to take ibuprofen to prevent breast cancer, Harris said in a statement.
His team looked at data from the National Cancer Institute's Women's Health Initiative, which follows tens of thousands of women, their habits, and their health.
They found that women who took two or more NSAIDs a week for five
to nine years reduced their risk of breast cancer by 21 percent. Low-dose
aspirin, often recommended to protect against heart disease, had no
effect, but regular-dose aspirin did.
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