Two aspirins a day may prevent family cancers

Tim Bishop
Tim Bishop
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THOUSANDS of cases of hereditary cancers could be prevented simply by taking aspirin, a landmark trial reveals today.

Researchers say two pills a day can cut the long-term risk of bowel cancer in people with family histories of the disease by 60 per cent amid evidence of a similar impact on other cancers with the same genetic link.

The study, led by experts from Newcastle and Leeds universities, suggests aspirin treatment could prevent as many as 10,000 cancers in the next 30 years, prolonging 1,000 lives.

Despite taking large doses of aspirin, patients in the study suffered no undue effects from the drug which is linked to increased risks of internal bleeding, stomach ulcers and some strokes.

Researchers say it could be a risk worth taking for people with a high cancer susceptibility.

Evidence of the benefits of aspirin has been accumulating for two decades but this is the first assessing its impact on cancer.

Professor Sir John Burn, from Newcastle, who led the international research collaboration, said: “What we have finally shown is that aspirin has a major preventative effect on cancer but this doesn’t become apparent until years later.”

Prof Tim Bishop, from Leeds, whose team carried out statistical analysis, said: “What surprised us was that there was no difference in the number of people developing polyps which are thought to be the precursors of cancer. But, many fewer patients who had been taking aspirin years before went on to develop cancers.”

The study, published in The Lancet, focused on patients with Lynch syndrome, a genetic fault that strongly predisposes people to bowel cancer and other solid organ cancers including womb, ovarian, pancreatic, brain, stomach and kidney. Those affected are 10 times more likely than average to develop cancer, often at a young age.

Sir John said there could be 30,000 people in the UK with the syndrome who might benefit.

“If we were to put them all on two aspirins a day now, in the next 30 years or so we would prevent 10,000 cancers. On the other hand, this would cause around 1,000 ulcers, so there’s a trade-off,” he said. “If we can prevent 10,000 cancers in return for 1,000 ulcers and 100 strokes, in most people’s minds that’s a good deal, especially if you’ve grown up in a family with three, four, five, six people who have had cancer.

“On the other hand, if you’re just in the general population and you don’t have cancer in your family, then that’s going to be a much finer balance.”

He added: “Before anyone begins to take aspirin on a regular basis they should consult their doctor as aspirin is known to bring with it a risk of stomach complaints including ulcers. However, if there is a strong family history of cancer then people may want to weigh up the cost-benefits particularly as these days drugs which block acid production in the stomach are available over the counter.”

Prof Nick Hastie, of the Medical Research Council, said: “This landmark study provides the clearest evidence yet that aspirin can help protect against development of this disease. As we learn more about the underlying mechanism of this anti-tumour effect, we will eventually be able to develop new ways of preventing and treating cancer.”