Aspirin - the little pill with a big impact on cancer

By Jeremy Laurance

Aspirin is a widely taken heart attack inhibitor. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Aspirin is a widely taken heart attack inhibitor. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It is not yet a panacea for all ills, but it is getting close. Yesterday, researchers announced the first proof that aspirin can cut the risk of a range of cancers by up to 50 per cent.

It is already taken by millions to protect against heart attacks and strokes and has an established role in preventing diabetes, dementia, pregnancy complications and pain.

Scientists stopped short of recommending it be added to the water supply but declared it was "the most amazing drug".

The latest positive findings on cancer had shifted the balance in favour of mass medication, but it was still too soon to recommend everyone take it, they said.

The study of eight trials involving 25,000 patients taking a low daily dose of aspirin to ward off heart disease found the drug reduced deaths caused by all cancers by 21 per cent.

If a new medicine were launched tomorrow with a similar effect it would be hailed as a miracle cure. But instead of being priced at tens of thousands of dollars, aspirin costs a few cents a tablet.

After five years on the drug, cancer death rates fell further - by a third overall and by 54 per cent for cancers of the digestive tract (including oesophagus, stomach and the bowel).

The benefit did not improve with higher doses of aspirin but increased the longer it was taken. It was also greater in older people because of the higher incidence of cancer. Over 20 years, the reduction in risk ranged from 10 per cent for prostate cancer to 60 per cent for oesophageal cancer.

The findings, published in The Lancet, follow a report in the journal last October showing that low doses of aspirin cut the risk of bowel cancer by a third.

Peter Rothwell, Professor of neurology at Oxford University, who led both studies, said the benefit of taking aspirin was consistent across the trials, "suggesting that the findings are likely to be generalisable".

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* For maximum benefit, a low dose 75mg of aspirin should be taken daily from late 40s or early 50s and continued for 20 to 30 years.

* After five to 10 years overall deaths from all causes are 10 per cent lower, and benefits grow as the years advance. However, research leaders advise against taking a daily dose except on the advice of their GP, as there could be other health complications.

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