A daily dose of aspirin can prevent cancer in people with a genetic disorder that increases their risk of developing the disease, scientists said today.
The finding might lead to treatments especially for colon cancer, which is one of the top three deadly cancers in the UK, alongside breast and lung cancer.
Around 35,000 people get diagnosed with colon or bowel cancer every year and around half of them die.
John Burn of the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University said his study might also have uncovered a simple way of controlling stems cells that make tumors grow.
‘We believe that aspirin may have an effect on the survival of aberrant (faulty) stem cells in the colon,’ Burn said, presenting his findings at the ECCO-ESMO European cancer congress in Berlin.
Burn and colleagues tested 1,071 people with Lynch syndrome – an inherited condition that predisposes a person to a range of cancers, particularly of the colon – by giving some of them aspirin and some a placebo.
Follow-up tests after 10 years showed that although there was no difference in cancer rates after 29 months, a significant difference was detected after four years, with fewer people in the aspirin group developing colon cancer, Burn said.
‘To date, there have been only six colon cancers in the aspirin group as opposed to 16 who took placebo,’ he added.
‘There is also a reduction in endometrial cancer.’
People with Lynch syndrome have an increased risk of many cancers including stomach, colon, brain, skin, and prostate. Women carriers also have a high risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancers.
Burn said that although people in the trial stopped taking aspirin, its effect clearly continued.
Aspirin, originally developed by Bayer, is a cheap over-the-counter drug which in low daily doses has been found to stave off the risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as chase away occasional aches and pains.
Other scientists have previously found it can reduce the risk of developing colon cancer and suggested it does so by blocking the enzyme cyclooxygenase2, or COX-2, which promotes inflammation and cell division and is found in high levels in tumors.
But Burn said he thought this explanation was unlikely, and thinks that aspirin hits faulty stem cells before they mutate into pre-cancerous cells.
‘If aspirin reduced the chances of such cells surviving, this would explain our results,’ he said.
Despite its benefits, aspirin is also well known for causing stomach upsets. In the study, 11 patients on aspirin had stomach bleeds or ulcers compared with nine on placebo.The team plans a further study using a larger group of patients taking differing aspirin doses.