Aspirin has earned its good name from its ability to relieve pain, soothe arthritis, and reduce fever. Its most important preventive benefit is the ability to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes in vulnerable individuals. And, according to the October 2011 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch, new research suggests this old standby may soon find a new role in fighting cancer.
Aspirin inhibits the action of two enzymes in the body: COX-1 and COX-2. One of these, COX-2, triggers the production of chemicals that cause fever, create inflammation in joints and other tissues, and aggravate pain. Research suggests that these same COX-2 enzymes may have a role in certain cancers. COX-2 appears to promote the growth of new blood vessels to support the rapid growth of tumors and may also interact with various growth factors to stimulate the multiplication of malignant cells. It also appears to inhibit apoptosis, a natural defense mechanism that helps prevent runaway tumor growth by triggering cell death by suicide.
The information about COX-2 inhibitors and human cancer is still under study, but scientists have already discovered that many of the most aggressive colon cancers have unusually high levels of COX-2, as do many prostate cancers. In addition, randomized clinical trials have demonstrated that COX-2 inhibitors help prevent people at high risk of colon cancer from producing the benign polyps that give rise to nearly all colon cancers. A British study analyzed fully completed, high-quality, randomized trials of aspirin. When analyzed together, these trials showed that daily aspirin reduced the risk of dying from cancer by 21%. Seven of the eight trials provided enough information to permit analysis of individual patients and specific cancers. Aspirin was most effective against gastrointestinal cancers, reducing the risk of death by 54%.
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