Aspirin is one of those cure-all, over-the-counter meds just about everyone has used at one time or another. Aspirin is the popular name for a chemical called acetylsalicylic acid, or ASA. Did you know that aspirin is derived from the leaves and bark of willow and birch trees? Aspirin is used to treat all sorts of conditions. It is thought to relieve pain, lower fevers, reduce inflammation, and protect the heart.
How does aspirin work? Damaged cells produce large quantities of an enzyme called “cylooxygenase-2.” This enzyme in turn produces a chemical called “prostaglandin,” which sends a message to the brain signaling that a specific part of the body is in pain. The chemical is also responsible for causing the injured area to release fluids and become inflamed. ASA “sticks” to the cylooxygenase-2 and prevents it from producing prostaglandin. As a result, some of your pain signals don’t reach your brain and you feel less pain.
Now, researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School think there may be one more use for the common, but versatile aspirin: it could cut the risk of death for men who have prostate cancer.
The Texas researchers looked at the records of more than 5,000 men with prostate cancer. Two thousand of the patients were found to be taking aspirin or other blood-thinning drugs. Of these 2,000 patients on anticoagulants, 1,649 were taking aspirin.
After an average follow-up of about seven years, only one percent of men who had been taking an anticoagulant had died, versus four percent of those in the control group. And, after 10 years, four percent of those taking one of these medications had died, versus 10% in the no-blood-thinner group.
This translates to a risk reduction of about 50%, the researchers noted.
The benefits didn’t stop there, however: the chances of the cancer spreading to the bone were reduced, while PSA blood levels were also better controlled.
Of all the blood thinners used in the study, aspirin was the one that seemed to account for most of the benefit, the researchers said.
The researchers think aspirin accomplished these remarkable anti-cancer feats in this way: cancer cells are coated by platelets when they enter the bloodstream and are on their way to spreading. This helps to protect them from immune cells and also helps them stick to their next location. The researchers think anticoagulants like aspirin may work by interfering with this process, making it much harder for cancer cells to stick and/or making them much more vulnerable to immune cells seeking to destroy them.
The research team cautions that it’s premature to say that aspirin should be used in a standard-therapy way in all patients with prostate cancer. Talk to your doctor first if you think it may help your condition; there are risks associated with aspirin, as with any other medication.