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Aspirin study - cancer cases halved

Friday 28 October, 2011
  • First international randomised control trial to prove aspirin can prevent cancer
  • Cancer Council Victoria funded research shows cancer cases halved in people with hereditary risk
  • Major follow-up trial seeks to recruit 3,000 people with Lynch syndrome worldwide

Cancer Council Victoria has welcomed the results of a study published today in The Lancet, which shows a regular dose of aspirin can half the number of cancer cases in people with a hereditary risk of the disease.

The research, led by Newcastle University in the UK, found that a long-term, regular dose of aspirin halved the number of cancer cases among men and women with Lynch syndrome - an inherited genetic disorder that puts people at high-risk of bowel and endometrial (womb) cancer.

Professor Finlay Macrae, head of Colorectal Medicine and Genetics at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, said the findings were a world first and a huge step forward in our understanding of the role of aspirin as a preventative medicine.

"The evidence linking aspirin and a lower cancer risk has been accumulating for a long time," Professor Macrae said. "However, this is the first international randomised control trial to focus on and prove that for some people with a hereditary risk of bowel cancer, a long-term regular dose of aspirin can actually prevent cancer.

"Previous, shorter trials have not been able to prove this link as the positive benefits of aspirin are not seen immediately," he said, "this can take some years."

The study involving scientists and clinicians from 43 centres in 16 countries followed nearly 1000 patients, in some cases for more than 10 years.

The trial was overseen by Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and funded by Cancer Research UK. International support for the trial came from local cancer agencies, including the Cancer Council Victoria (CCV). CCV funded the Australian coordination of the project, managing the 104 recruits across Australia from widely dispersed geographic locations, both metropolitan and remote.

The patients were split into two groups - one group who took two aspirin every day and the other who took two placebo tablets. The number of people diagnosed with bowel cancer in the group of men and women taking aspirin was half the number of those taking the placebos.

Professor Macrae said the results of the long-term study offered real hope to people with a hereditary risk of bowel cancer.

"It's recommended that people speak to their doctor or health professional before they start taking any medication long term, such as aspirin," he said.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said the results of the study were extremely promising but that advice for the general population remains the same.

"Cancer Council Victoria is committed to investing in life-saving research and these results are a testament to what can be achieved when we work together, locally and internationally.

"The results are very promising but more research is needed before we would encourage all Australians to take a daily dose of aspirin. However we do know that a healthy lifestyle - which includes eating well, not smoking and being physically active - can significantly reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

"Bowel cancer is our second biggest cancer killer yet 90% of cases can be cured if found early. That's why we encourage men and women aged 50 and over to complete a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) every two years.

"Bowel cancer often develops without symptoms so this simple, at-home test can save lives," Mr Harper added.

FOBTs can be purchased online from Cancer Council Victoria or by calling the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.

Tests cost $30 or $22 for those on a pension or with a Health Care Card.

Bowel cancer facts:

  • About 5% of the 13,000 people (on average) diagnosed with bowel cancer in Australia each year have Lynch syndrome
  • Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in Australia and claims the lives of more than 70 Australian men and women each week
  • Cancer Council Victoria gave $50,000 to fund the research study in Australia