Taking painkillers was shown to triple survival rates
Researchers studied the tumours of 75 patients who carried mutated versions of the PIK3CA gene. Those who regularly used NSAIDs for at least six months had “markedly prolonged” survival rates compared to those who did not. Use of the drugs boosted the five-year survival rate from 25 to 78 per cent, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.
Patients without alterations in their gene did not benefit from taking NSAIDs.
Study author Dr Jennifer R. Grandis, said: “Our results suggest that the use of NSAIDs could significantly improve outcomes for not only head and neck cancer patients, but also patients with other cancers that contained the PIK3CA mutation.
“The magnitude of the apparent advantage is strong, and could potentially have a positive impact on human health.”
PIKC3A is the most commonly altered gene in head and neck cancer, with 34 per cent of patients carrying mutations.
More than a third of people with head and neck cancer could benefit from common painkillers
The researchers said NSAIDs likely blocked tumour growth by reducing the production of an inflammatory molecule called prostaglandin E2.
More than 12,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancers every year in the UK and around 4,000 sufferers die annually.
Primary risk factors include smoking, alcohol use, and HPV infection.
Dr Grandis added: “Inconsistencies in the type, timing, and dosages of NSAIDs taken by patients in this study limit our ability to make specific therapeutic recommendations.
“But the magnitude of the apparent advantage, especially given the marked morbidity and mortality of this disease, warrants further study in a prospective, randomized clinical trial.”
Justin Stebbing, professor of cancer medicine and medical oncology at Imperial College London, said: “We know that inflammation is really important in cancer and can be used as part of the processes by which cancer cells spread and grow.
“Studies in colon, breast and other tumours have shown that anti-inflammatories may be helpful in patients with cancers that have certain mutations in them.
“This study in head and neck cancer takes that knowledge further with anti-inflammatories acting on two enzymes: the COX and PI3K proteins.
“We need to wait for results of future studies and ongoing ones to understand whether patients should take these drugs, when and how and in what dose.
“This is why the Add-Aspirin national study across cancer types is so important, where we measure survival in patients given aspirin or placebo, to try to understand the effects better.”
The Add-Aspirin trial has recruited 11,000 people in the UK, Ireland and India to help discover whether use after treatment for an early stage cancer can stop it returning.
COMMENT by Philip Hobson
Aspirin has been used for many years as an effective pain relief medicine.
If you’re suffering a severe headache or from a serious case of flu, then aspirin could really help.
However its benefits don’t end there. Scientists have discovered that a much lower dose of aspirin can also slow down the blood clotting process by stopping platelets sticking together.
Scientists found a low dose of aspirin can slow blood clotting
People who have suffered a heart attack or stroke are often prescribed a small dose of aspirin on a daily basis because it can significantly lower their risk of further heart attacks and strokes.
The flipside of aspirin working in this way is that it can also slightly increase the risk of internal bleeding, such as gastric bleeding, and cause other unwanted side effects.
For people who have suffered a heart attack or stroke, this small risk is outweighed by the potentially life-saving benefits of aspirin.
However, for healthy people this isn’t the case. UK guidelines only recommend a daily aspirin for those with heart and circulatory disease and as prescribed by a doctor.
Despite this, there have been worrying reports of healthy people taking aspirin to help prevent a heart attack or stroke without seeking medical advice first. This could be dangerous.
We would always encourage people to discuss taking aspirin with their GP or specialist in the first instance.
For those who have been prescribed aspirin following a heart attack or stroke, you should continue to take them each day, and speak to your doctor if you are concerned.
It is important to follow the advice given with your medication. You are advised to take aspirin with food to help reduce unwanted side effects such as heartburn or indigestion, which may give rise to chest pain symptoms.
If you do experience side effects such as stomach upset, excessive bruising or bleeding, please discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist.
• Philipa Hobson is a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation