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Aspirin hailed as potential anti-cancer drug

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 August 2003

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The humble aspirin, already under trial as a preventative agent for cancer, could also help treat certain types of the disease, researchers report in the journal Nature1.

Scientists from Cancer Research UK suggest that the drug’s anti-inflammatory effects could combat a family of cancers fuelled by local inflammation.

Working with Greek colleagues, they have found that a rare inherited cancer called turban tumour syndrome is caused when the inflammatory response becomes rampantly over-active.

The authors plan to trial aspirin as a treatment for the syndrome, and believe it could also be effective against other forms of the disease that may be triggered by inflammation, including some types of breast cancer.

Team leader Professor Alan Ashworth, of the Cancer Research UK Gene Function and Regulation Group at The Institute of Cancer Research, says: “We believe over-active, uncontrolled inflammation could be a common factor in turban tumour syndrome and a number of other cancers.

“Inflamed tissues release a host of growth factors and other molecules that may help keep cancer cells alive, so dampening down the inflammation with drugs like aspirin could be a highly effective anti-cancer treatment in some forms of the disease.”

Turban tumour syndrome is a rare form of inherited skin cancer, known medically as cylindromatosis, in which huge, mushroom shaped tumours grow out of the scalp and other hairy parts of the body. While the tumours are benign, they can cause horrendous disfigurement and discomfort and may eventually turn into life-threatening malignant cancers.

The syndrome is caused by inheriting a damaged version of the CYLD gene, discovered three years ago by a consortium of Cancer Research UK scientists, including Prof Ashworth. In the new study, researchers examined the biochemical effects of the CYLD gene, in order to find out why inheriting it leads to the syndrome.

They found the normal version of the gene plays a crucial role in ensuring the inflammatory response only gets switched on in response to disease or tissue damage and does not become over-active. When CYLD goes wrong the response over-heats, causing the large, swollen tumours characteristic of turban tumour sydrome.

The problems occur because the damaged CYLD gene can no longer keep in check a molecule called NF-kappaB, important for switching on the inflammatory response. NF-kappaB becomes over-active in a number of types of cancer, including some breast cancers, fuelling the growth of cancer cells and keeping them alive beyond their usual lifespan.

Researchers believe anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or its stronger relative indomethacin could be effective at attacking some types of tumour by countering the effects of NF-kappaB. Support for the theory comes from another paper in tomorrow’s Nature, in which Dutch scientists found aspirin could kill cancer cells in the laboratory.

Prof Ashworth adds: “It’s important that we put the theory to test in patients as soon as we can. In the case of turban tumour syndrome, we think anti-inflammatory drugs could be rubbed into tumours in gel form in order to shrink them, or perhaps given to younger patients before they have begun to show signs of the disease, as a preventative measure.

“We know inflammation can play a role in the development of a number of other cancers too, so it could be that aspirin will find a range of uses as a cancer treatment. First though we need much more information about the detailed effects of the inflammatory response in these patients.”

Professor Robert Souhami, Cancer Research UK’s Director of Clinical Research, says: “Even after a hundred years, we’re still uncovering new possibilities for the use of aspirin. In the latest study, scientists have suggested that aspirin or one of its stronger relatives might help treat certain tumours in which genes involved in the inflammatory response have become deranged.

“It’s another example of the way in which basic research opens up possibilities for treatment, in this case with a cheap and readily available drug.”


  1. Nature424 (6950) pp.793-796