• 3/26/2003
  • London
  • Patricia Reaney
  • Reuters

Taking low-dose aspirin regularly could cut the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus, Italian researchers said on Tuesday. Millions of people already take the painkiller to relieve headaches and arthritis and to prevent heart attacks and stroke. Studies have also suggested the century-old drug could have a protective effect against bowel and lung cancer.

Researchers at the Institute of Pharmacological Research in Milan have now shown that aspirin can slash the risk of mouth and throat cancer by two-thirds. “We found aspirin had a protective effect against cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract,” Dr. Cristina Bosetti, an epidemiologist at the institute, said in an interview. Bosetti and her team analyzed three previous studies involving 965 cancer patients who had been taking aspirin for other problems, such as heart disease, for five years. The cancer patients and nearly 1,800 other people filled in questionnaires about their smoking and drinking habits, diet and how often they took aspirin.

The research, which is reported in the British Journal of Cancer, revealed fewer mouth and throat cancers in the patients who had been taking aspirin for five years or longer. “This is the first study which reports such protection. Few studies have been conducted on aspirin and the upper aerodigestive tract,” Bosetti added in a statement. The researchers believe aspirin may play a role in cutting cancer risk because of its impact on an enzyme called cyclooxegenase-2, which is involved in inflammation and is thought to be linked to the development of cancer. They also suspect aspirin may play an important role in preventing stomach, prostate and breast cancer.

“The effect of aspirin can also be seen in other cancers because cyclooxegenase is also implicated in cancer of the stomach and breast cancer. If this is the mechanism of action the effect of aspirin could be similar for these cancers,” Bosetti said. Dr. Richard Sullivan, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said the research is further proof that aspirin, which began as a simple painkiller, is one of the greatest finds in the history of drug discovery. “We’re not yet at the stage where we can recommend that everyone starts taking aspirin on a daily basis, as we’ll need to further investigate its effectiveness and possible side-effects of long-term use. However, it looks as though the drug could become an important part of cancer prevention,” he added.