Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), the world's most popular drug, may one day become an important component in treatments against some of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. Clinical trials have commenced in the United Kingdom in order to establish whether aspirin can enhance immunotherapy for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
Could aspirin become a generic cancer drug? Some scientists want to find out
Aspirin is classed as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that is primarily recommended to reduce pain and inflammation. Until not long ago, doctors used to recommend it to prevent heart attacks and strokes, but recent research suggests healthy people with no history of cardiovascular disease shouldn't routinely use aspirin due to internal bleeding risks.
But, more strikingly, some studies seem to indicate that this cheap and widely available generic drug could also play an important role in battling cancer. A 2014 study led by Professor Jack Cuzick, head of the center for cancer prevention at Queen Mary University of London, found that people who took aspirin daily for at least five years had a 35% reduction in bowel cancer, as well as a 30% reduction in esophageal and stomach cancers.
“Aspirin is showing promise in preventing certain types of cancer, but it’s vital that we balance this with the complications it can cause – such as bleeding, stomach ulcers, or even strokes in some people,” said Dr. Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK.
Emboldened by previous research that hints at aspirin's potential role in treating cancer, a team of scientists, led by Dr. Anne Armstrong from the Christie NHS foundation trust in Manchester, UK, have embarked on a new clinical trial that will see aspirin combined with avelumab, a fully human monoclonal antibody medication for cancer.
During the trial, patients with triple-negative breast cancer will be given avelumab either with or without aspirin before receiving surgery and chemotherapy.
Triple-negative breast cancer is considered to be more aggressive and has a poorer prognosis than other types of breast cancer. It is characterized by the lack of the estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), hence its name. Around 15% of breast cancers are of this type.
“Our earlier research has suggested that aspirin can make certain types of immunotherapy more effective by preventing the cancer from making substances that weaken the immune response,” Armstrong told The Guardian.
“Anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin could hold the key to increasing the effectiveness of immunotherapy when used at the same time. Trialing the use of a drug like aspirin is exciting because it is so widely available and inexpensive to produce. ”
“We hope our trial will show that, when combined with immunotherapy, aspirin can enhance its effects and may ultimately provide a safe new way to treat breast cancer.”