The World’s Largest Clinical Study Is Examining the World’s Oldest Wonderdrug

Can Aspirin fight cancer?

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Oct 26 2015, 11:00am

Image: Schjelderup/Flickr

The world's largest clinical study is about to begin, and it's only aimed at studying one thing: aspirin.

The study, which includes 11,000 patients across the U.K. and will take 12 years to complete, aims to understand the impact that aspirin can have on different types of cancer. The patients involved in the study, all of whom have been treated for either bowel, breast, oesophageal, prostate, or stomach cancer, will take either 100 mg of aspirin, 300 mg of aspirin, or a placebo throughout the study's course.

The study, funded by the NHS's National Institute for Health Research, is an enormous undertaking and could have major implications, the lead researchers say.

"If we find that aspirin does stop these cancers returning, it could change future treatment—providing a cheap and simple way to help stop cancer coming back and helping more people survive," Prof Ruth Langley, the chief investigator at the Medical Research Council's clinical trials unit at University College London, told the Guardian.

It's not the first time scientists have looked into whether aspirin could help stave off cancer. One 2012 study that found that a daily low-dose aspirin lowered the risk of developing common lung, prostate, and colon cancers by an average of 46 percent. In 2014, another study published in the Annals of Oncology confirmed that aspirin "protects most strongly" against bowel, stomach, and oesophageal cancers, and also more weakly against lung, prostate, and breast cancers. The study found that aspirin prevented fewer deaths from both cancer and heart attacks in a population tghat took aspirin every day. And just this week, a study found that aspirin could help women with a particular inflammatory condition increase their chances of getting pregnant by 17 percent.

In fact, aspirin has a long history of being seen as a kind of cure-all wonder drug for a range of maladies. Aspirin, which is derived from a genus of shrub called Spiraea, crops up repeatedly in history: the ancient Egyptians, the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, and Lewis and Clark are all known to have used willow bark for a pain reliever. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the key ingredient that makes aspirin work.

Now, it's been widely accepted as an effective a way to fend off heart disease because it keeps blood clots from forming. The American Heart Association even recommends taking a low dose of aspirin every day for people at risk of heart disease.

Now, in the new study researchers are testing the prevailing theory which says that aspirin's inflammation-reducing capabilities may be a way to lower cancer rates.

Of aspirin, the late medical writer Berton Roueché wrote in 1955 that: "There are no countries in which it is unknown, unappreciated, or unavailable." It turns out that there may be something new to know about a very old drug.