Taking the drug regularly for five years or more seems to cut the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and oesophagus by two thirds, according to the new study.
Researchers have already suggested the humble medicine may help prevent bowel and lung cancer, on top of its painkilling properties and its therapeutic effects against arthritis and heart disease. The new evidence further extends its list of possible health benefits.
Scientists from the Institute of Pharmacological Research in Milan combined and reanalysed data from three separate studies involving 965 cancer patients and 1779 people who were in hospital for other conditions.
People who had taken aspirin regularly for five years or more were at only a third of the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and oesophagus as those who hadn’t used the drug.
Lead Researcher Dr Cristina Bosetti says: “This is the first quantitative evidence that taking aspirin may reduce the risk of developing cancers in what we call the aerodigestive tract, connecting the mouth and the stomach.
“We think that aspirin may take effect by acting on an enzyme called cyclo-oxegenase-2, which has a role both in inflammation and the process of cancer growth. Our results further extend our knowledge of the health benefits of this remarkable drug and suggest that taking it could become an important way of protecting ourselves against cancer.”
Many of the aspirin users in the study had been taking the drug because they had been diagnosed with other health problems, such as heart disease. Scientists believe that if people started taking the drug earlier, specifically for its anti-cancer properties, it might be possible to achieve even stronger protective effects, although they acknowledge that research will be needed to evaluate this and to track possible side effects of long-term aspirin use.
Dr Richard Sullivan, Head of Clinical Programmes for Cancer Research UK, owners of the British Journal of Cancer, says: “Aspirin has to count as one of the greatest finds in the history of drug discovery. What began life as a simple painkiller now seems to have a wide range of beneficial effects for our health, and this new study adds to the evidence of a significant protective effect against cancer.
“We’re not yet at the stage where we can recommend that everyone starts taking aspirin on a daily basis, as we’ll need to further investigate its effectiveness and possible side-effects of long-term use. However, it looks as though the drug could become an important part of cancer prevention.”
- British Journal of Cancer88 (5)
Each year in the UK, there are 7,250 cases of oesophageal cancer, around 4,000 cases of mouth cancer and 2,200 cases of throat cancer.
Smoking and heavy drinking are the main risk factors for all three types.