Cancer sufferers have been given hope of an improved treatment after scientists made a key breakthrough in identifying how aspirin protects against the disease.
By isolating the specific cancer-fighting compound the compound it is hoped that they can develop drugs without side-effects.
Last month, Oxford scientists reported in The Lancet that taking a daily low-dose aspirin for five years cut cancer death risk by 37 per cent.
And now in a major breakthrough separate research has isolated salicylate – a compound that aspirin breaks down into after it’s ingested – as the key cancer-fighting component.
Researchers from Canada, Scotland and Australia found this ingredient may give cancer protection but without the dangerous side-effects of aspirin, such as the increased risk of stomach bleeding.
Aspirin, derived from plants such as willow bark, has been used as a drug for thousands of years.
More recently its efficacy in preventing heart attacks and strokes in high-risk patients has been well documented and now it is giving hope to thousands of cancer patients.
In tests, study co-author Grahame Hardie from the University of Dundee, applied salicylate to cultured human kidney cells.
He found this ingredient activated an enzyme called AMPK which is involved in how the body breaks down fat and plays a role in cancer and diabetes.
Her concluded that it is specificaly salicylate and not aspirin itself that switches on the key cancer-preventing enzyme.
Professor Hardie, said: ‘Aspirin has many beneficial effects but, despite it being used in humans for over 100 years, we are still finding out how they come about.’
A team led by Dr Greg Steinberg at McMaster University followed up on the research by testing salicylate on mice.
They found it increased fat burning and reduced liver fat in obese mice with the AMPK enzyme but not in those without, confirming the Dundee study findings.
An aspirin derivative called salsalate, has shown promise as a treatment for insulin-resistance and type 2 diabetes, but doesn’t appear to work via the AMPK enzyme.
This suggests that aspirin potentially works through a number of different pathways and that its anti-inflammatory effects may work on different targets to those that protect against cancer.
This could pave the way for cancer drugs with fewer side-effects.
Scientists will next test salicylate directly in mouse models of cancer and see what role, if any, the AMPK enzyme has on its effectiveness.