Is Aspirin a miracle drug?
More and more research is emerging on the benefits of taking a low daily dose of the cheap painkiller — from preventing heart attacks and strokes to possibly preventing different forms of cancer.
Why, more than 100 years after it was discovered, is Aspirin still surprising the medical community?
“(It’s) a combination of factors: it’s been around a long time, a lot of people use it, a lot of people are studying it, and there’s a lot of information on its use in the laboratory setting, which provides us with a lot of data to really understand its potential uses,” says Dr. Andrew Chan, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and assistant professor of medicine, gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
German chemist Felix Hoffman, working for eventual international pharmaceutical giant Bayer, created acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) in 1897 in chemical form. Two years later, Bayer began selling the drug under the trade name Aspirin.
It has been used for decades to relieve headaches, muscle aches and fever.
In the 1970s, British pharmacologist John Vane discovered the science behind Aspirin’s anti-inflammatory properties — the pain reliever stops the production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins by blocking an enzyme in the body known as cyclooxygenase.
Vane was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1982 for his research.
A daily low dose (around 75 milligrams) of the anti-inflammatory has also been said to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, ease arthritis pain and stop the formation of blood clots, since it acts as a blood thinner.
Aspirin’s image as a “preventive agent” got a boost last month with a series of studies in medical journals The Lancet and The Lancet Oncology focusing on how the pain reliever can reduce the risk of cancer deaths.
Oncologists already know that a long-term, low daily dosage of Aspirin may reduce cancer-related deaths, specifically colon cancer. But the latest studies, led by Dr. Peter Rothwell, professor of clinical neurology at the University of Oxford, found that daily Aspirin also has the potential to prevent and to stop the spread of certain forms of cancer when taken in short — three- to five-year — periods.
In one study Rothwell and his team found that after taking Aspirin daily for three years the threat of developing cancer was cut to about 25 per cent compared to those not taking the drug; after five years of taking the painkiller, the risk of dying from cancer was cut to 37 per cent.
“Aspirin clearly has benefits beyond what we previously considered,” says Chan, who wrote a commentary in The Lancet on Rothwell’s studies.
Due to Aspirin’s potential to fight two leading causes of death in the developed world — cancer and cardiovascular disease — plus the ongoing research around it, it’s fair to call it “a transformative drug” in terms of disease prevention, he says.
Next may be discovering if Aspirin can prevent dementia, Chan says.
Despite the discoveries, Aspirin’s side effects pose serious concerns.
Chan says it’s too early for the drug to be recommended on a daily basis for the general public as side effects include gastrointestinal bleeding, bleeding strokes and brain hemorrhaging.
More data needs to be collected before it becomes a general recommendation, Chan says.
“At this point . . . I think people need to individualize their use of Aspirin and discuss it with their doctors to determine whether the potential benefits . . . outweigh the risks,” he says.
- Humble aspirin ‘stops cancerous tumours spreading’ (talesfromthelou.wordpress.com)