Volume 96, Issue 89
Wednesday, March 19, 2003

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Aspirin vs. cancer?

By Dan Perry
Gazette Staff

When exam stress is mounting and the coffee just won't shake those headaches, pop an aspirin – taking one a day might eventually prevent cancer as well.

In a new study published this month, Robert Sandler, a professor at the University of North Carolina, discovered that one aspirin a day decreased the amount of polyps – which are thought to cause cancer – produced in the body by blocking the COX-2 enzyme, which is responsible for inflammation.

Sandler, the study's chief investigator, said 635 patients with colorectal cancer enrolled in the study in over 100 hospitals across the United States, with some taking aspirin and some taking placebos. "The [study's] goal was to see if one aspirin a day decreased development of polyps in the large intestine," he said.

The amount of polyps produced decreased by over 35 per cent in those taking aspirin, and the study was stopped earlier than expected. "The statisticians told us we'd already answered the questions," Sandler explained.

Pamela Leco, chief resident in radiation oncology at Western, said the connection between aspirin use and polyp reduction was first discovered by heart disease research.

"A lot of the effects of drugs we have today were discovered serendipitously," she said, adding many drugs' side effects have often proved to work more effectively than their original purpose.

The studies could have a local impact as well.

"There's no research currently going on, but [London Health Sciences Centre] will be starting some clinical trials with some of the COX-2 inhibitors," Leco said, noting these trials will be treatment, but not prevention, oriented.

"There's a lot of talk of inhibiting COX-2 to try to reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer. Though studies haven't been done, there's reasonable evidence that it might work," said Jim Koropatnick, director of the Cancer Research Laboratories at the London Regional Cancer Centre.

Leco and Koropatnick both commented on the need for further research. "The big question is 'Why is it working?'" Koropatnick asked.

"We don't know how it works exactly – there are multiple pathways [in the body] to turn things on and off [like COX-2 does with inflammation], and we're trying to learn the specifics," Leco said, adding there is a lot of similar research going on all over the world.

Koropatnick pointed out that COX-2 can be induced in other environments as well. "Carcinogens and fatty acids found in some shellfish [can also] increase COX-2 protection," he added.

Sandler was cautious, noting that aspirin is not a new anti-cancer wonder drug. "Aspirin prevents polyps, which we believe cause cancer, and decreases the number of polyps," he said. "If people are serious about preventing colon cancer, they should get screened."

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