It's one of the oldest, cheapest drugs around, which makes it even more remarkable that humble aspirin helped dramatically cut the death rate among people with a specific kind of colon cancer, compared with those who didn't take aspirin, new research shows.
Harvard researchers in a large, government-funded study found that among patients whose tumors had a PIK3CA gene mutation - the cause of about 15 to 20 percent of colorectal tumors - regularly taking aspirin cut the risk of death by 82 percent, measured against those with the mutation who didn't take aspirin.
Furthermore, the Associated Press reports, five years after their cancers were diagnosed, 97 percent of those who took a daily aspirin - low-dose or regular - were still alive, versus 74 percent of those not taking the drug.
"It's exciting to think that something that's already in the medicine cabinet may really have an important effect" beyond relieving pain and helping to prevent heart attacks, researcher Andrew Chan, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Associated Press.
Unfortunately, aspirin seemed to help only those patients whose colon cancer was caused by the mutated gene. Those who didn't have the mutation got no benefit from taking aspirin, the study found.
The study, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 143,000 people will be diagnosed with it this year and nearly 52,000 will die. About 95 percent of deaths from colon cancer occur in people age 50 or older.
Previous studies have indicated that aspirin may help inhibit an enzyme involved in some colorectal tumors, and aspirin is often recommended to people with colon cancer. But it's not been clear which patients would benefit most.
In this study, researchers looked at 964 people diagnosed with colon cancer who were part of two national health studies that began in the 1980s. Every two years, participants filled out surveys about their health habits, including aspirin use.
Of the 964 patients, however, only a small group had the genetic mutation: 64 who were regular aspirin users and 90 who were nonaspirin users. Still, the aspirin effect was significant. Only two of the aspirin users died within five years of their cancer diagnosis, versus 23 of the nonaspirin users with such a mutation.
If these study results are also seen in larger studies, it could be a major plus for colon cancer patients, Boris Pasche, M.D., director of hematology and oncology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Medicine, told CNN. Pasche also wrote an accompanying editorial with the study.
Although aspirin was effective for this group of patients, people shouldn't begin taking it on their own without consulting their doctors. Aspirin can cause serious bleeding in the stomach and intestine.
In other health news:
Green tea appears to ward off some cancers in older women. NBC Today Health reports that older women who regularly drink green tea may have slightly lower risks of colon, stomach and throat cancers than women who don't, according to a Canadian study that followed thousands of Chinese women over a decade. The researchers found that of the more than 69,000 women, those who drank green tea at least three times a week were 14 percent less likely to develop a cancer of the digestive system.
Study finds extra vitamin D has no cardiovascular benefit. The New York Times reports that despite some observational studies suggesting that extra vitamin D reduces the risk of vascular disease and mortality, a new placebo-controlled, randomized trial has found that the supplements have no effect on the most common blood markers for cardiovascular risk and death, including cholesterol and blood pressure.