Taking low-dose aspirin could slash women’s risk of ovarian cancer by a quarter, a major study has concluded.
A study of 205,000 women, led by Harvard University, found those who regularly took a quarter-dose painkiller were far less likely to be diagnosed with the cancer.
Ovarian cancer, known as a ‘silent killer’ because it has few symptoms until too late, affects about 7,400 British women and 22,240 American women every year, and kills 4,100 Brits and 14,070 Americans.
The research team found that women who regularly took a low-dose aspirin pill – typically available in the UK in a 75 milligram dose for daily use – were 23 per cent less likely to develop ovarian cancer.
The same benefits were not found for a high-dose pill – the 300mg dose used for headaches – possibly because they were not taken long-term.
Aspirin has been used as a painkiller for thousands of years, since the Ancient Egyptians found that an extract of willow bark helped mothers cope with the pain of child birth.
But in recent years scientists have found that the cheap drug has many more applications.
Because it thins the blood and reduces inflammation, scientists are increasingly finding that it can ward off the threat of diseases.
The cheap drug, which costs less than 2p per tablet, is commonly prescribed by doctors in lower doses to prevent heart problems, because it stops platelets in the blood clumping together to form clots.
Scientists have for some time been exploring whether aspirin may ward off cancer.
Experts have already shown that low-dose aspirin could significantly reduce the risk of bowel cancer.
But the new Harvard study provides the strongest evidence to date that aspirin may also be used to stop ovarian cancer – the sixth most common cancer among British women.
The authors do not know exactly how this works, but they suspect it may be because aspirin reduces platelet activation – a key part of the formation of tumors.
The reduction of inflammation – which is specifically linked to the development of ovarian cancer – is also likely to play a role.
Researcher Dr Mollie Barnard said: ‘What really differentiated this study from prior work was that we were able to analyse low-dose aspirin separately from standard dose aspirin.
‘Our findings emphasise that research on aspirin use and cancer risk must consider aspirin dose.
‘Our results also highlight the need for ongoing conversations between patients and their doctors on the risks and benefits of taking low-dose aspirin.’
The study, published in the JAMA Oncology journal, also found that other painkillers – nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen – actually raise the risk of ovarian cancer.
When taken in quantities of at least 10 tablets per week for several years, they raised the risk of ovarian cancer by 19 percent.
UK experts last night welcomed the findings.
Dr Mangesh Thorat of Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘This well-conducted study adds to the evidence that prolonged regular use of low-dose aspirin may reduce risk of ovarian cancer – but overall evidence still remains insufficient to recommend aspirin use specifically for ovarian cancer prevention.
‘The study also raises a caution, although nothing beyond an observed association, about long-term use of other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.’
Professor Justin Stebbing of Imperial College London, added: ‘As far as I know it’s the first study that in detail looks at the associations between type, timing, frequency, quantity, and duration of pain-killer use with risk of ovarian cancer by using regularly updated exposure information.’
Experts warn, however, that people should consult their doctor before starting to take any drug.
Because aspirin is a blood thinner it comes with a risk of internal bleeding – particularly among people with certain conditions such as an abnormal heart rhythm.
In some cases can cause stomach bleeds and ulcers, which are not usually fatal but can require hospital treatment.
But in rare instances it can cause a stroke or a life-threatening hemorrhage.