By Donna Domino, features editor

April 12, 2013 -- Aspirin appears to offer significant protection against head and neck (HNC) cancer, according to a study in the British Journal of Cancer (March 19, 2013, Vol. 108:5, pp. 1178-1181).

More than 600,000 cases of head and neck (HNC) cancer are diagnosed annually, according to the study authors, from Queen's University Belfast and the National Cancer Institute. Several studies have shown that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can lower the risk of cancer, mainly by reducing chronic inflammation, a driving force behind the development of many cancers.

Specifically, NSAIDs have been shown to inhibit the production of the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) enzyme, according to the researchers. Disruption of this pathway slows the growth of abnormal cells and encourages apoptosis, both of which can thwart cancer development. Studies also suggest that NSAIDs decrease the proliferation of cells and slow the growth of blood vessels that supply blood to tumors.

For this study, the researchers used data from the U.S. National Cancer Institute Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial to analyze the association between aspirin and ibuprofen use and HNC. The study examined 142,034 cancer patients, including 316 with HNC. Some 49.2% reported regular use of aspirin; 29.6% used ibuprofen.

Regular aspirin use was associated with a 22% reduction in head and neck cancer, and seems to be particularly effective in preventing laryngeal cancer. A significant reduction of HNC risk was observed between weekly and monthly aspirin use: There was greater reduction in HNC risk with weekly and monthly aspirin use than daily use, the researchers found. And they found no association between the use of ibuprofen and HNC.

The strongest protective effect of aspirin was on laryngeal cancer, the researchers noted. They found an inverse but nonsignificant association between aspirin and oropharyngeal cancer. Aspirin even seemed to have a salutary effect on patients who drank alcohol, the study results also revealed.

"This study supports the view that aspirin may have potential as a chemopreventive agent for HNC," the researchers wrote, while they found little evidence that ibuprofen was associated with a reduced risk of HNC. Further studies are needed to analyze the strength and duration of aspirin use that may be required to yield a protective effect.

Aspirin has also shown to have a protective effect against Barrett's esophagus, a precancerous condition that can lead to esophageal cancer, according to an earlier study in PLOS Medicine (February 27, 2007).

Researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle followed 243 people with Barrett's esophagus for 10 years. They found that patients who had at least three of the cancer biomarkers when they enrolled in the study and also used aspirin or other NSAIDs had a 30% risk of esophageal cancer after 10 years. Those with the same biomarkers who did not use NSAIDs had a 79% risk of developing cancer within a decade of joining the study.

Approximately 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with Barrett's-related esophageal cancer annually, the fastest rising type of cancer in the U.S. More than 80% of patients with invasive esophageal adenocarcinoma die within five years of diagnosis.

Copyright © 2013

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