Ibuprofen and aspirin triples cancer survival in some patients, study suggests

Henry Bodkin
Scientists believe the cheap drug may block a key inflammatory molecule - Bloomberg

Taking ibuprofen and aspirin can triple the likelihood of surviving cancer, a new study suggests.

A trial at the University of California found the five-year survival rate of 25 per cent increased to 78 per cent when  some patients took the anti-inflammatory medications.

The drug’s apparently dramatic beneficial effect applied to patients with an alteration to a particular gene in their cancerous tumour, known as PIK3CA.

The scientists behind the research say this is significant because that gene alteration occurs across a range of different cancers, including breast, bowel and endometrial cancer.

It means that, once backed up by larger trials, prescribing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen could soon become a routine and powerful addition to normal cancer treatment for a substantial proportion of patients.

Approximately 34 per cent of head and neck tumours carry the mutation, while it occurs in between 15 and 30 per cent breast, bowel and endometrial cancers.

While the current trial, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, cannot prove cause and effect, its authors said they believe NSAIDs block tumour growth by reducing the production of an inflammatory molecule called prostaglandin E2.

Professor Jennifer Grandis, who led the research, 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.”

NSAIDs, many of which are over-the-counter, are recommended to reduce inflammation, fever and blood clots, with aspirin commonly used by patients with cardiovascular disease and or at high risk of stroke.

They are also the most frequently-prescribed medications for arthritis.

The new trial involved 266 patients whose tumours had been removed, most of whom were receiving post-surgery chemotherapy and / or radiotherapy.

The results showed that regular use of NSAIDs - defined as two or more doses a week - for at least six months “markedly prolonged” improved survival compared to non-use for patients whose PIK3CA gene was mutated or amplified.

In patients without the genetic alteration, no survival benefit was seen from taking NSAID.

Professor Janusz Jankowski, a Cancer Research UK-funded medicines expert, said: "It's encouraging to see that cheap and well-established drugs could one day be used to treat patients with certain genetic faults in their tumour. Much like a speed regulator in a car, drugs like aspirin slow down the metabolism of cells, which could help stall tumour growth.”

Among the patients in the trial who regularly used NSAID’s, 93 per cent used aspirin along with other types and 73 used aspirin exclusively.

Professor Jankowki warned advised patients to speak to their doctor before going onto aspirin as the drug can have significant side effects, such as serious bleeding.

Earlier this week a major study by King’s College London indicated that thousands of healthy patients were putting themselves at unnecessary risk by taking a daily pill preventatively.

Prof Justin Stebbing, from 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.”