Biology

Can one of the most popped pills on Earth help prevent cancer?

A milestone study conducted in 2012 has revealed that thousands of hereditary cancer cases leading to death can be prevented by taking a moderate dose of aspirin each day. The findings published in the Lancet Journal suggest that aspirin could prevent the deaths of over 10,000 cancer suffers if they ingest two 300 milligram pills each morning.

While this particular study was carried out on patients with Lynch syndrome (a genetic fault that has a high probability of leading to bowel cancer) researchers are confident that as many as 30,000 people with Lynch syndrome and bowel cancer will be aided from aspirin-related treatments. Leading the research, Professor Sir John Burn commented on the “overwhelmingly strong” indications from the procedure which spanned several years.

Beginning in 2007, two groups of patientswere administered either the test dose of aspirin or a bicarbonate placebo. Initially, no outcomes emerged during the test period. However in the years that followed, it became clear that aspirin had a direct impact on a patient’s bowel cancer. While it is still unclear exactly what causes the preventative effect of aspirin on cancers, researchers learned that it is related to the inhibition of the ‘COX’ enzymes in the colon.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 Cancer causes 25%of all deaths in the United Kingdom. A balanced diet, complemented by a reduced nicotine and alcohol intake, has been suggested to decrease the risk of developing cancer in the body. For many years, researchers have emphasized this lifestyle as the way forward. Meanwhile, the new study crunches some numbers relating specifically to the effects of aspirin. Best Health reported that “over 20 years, a person’s risk of dying from cancer fell by 3.49 percentage points if they took aspirin.” Because the risk of cancer increases with age, the elderly could benefit greatly from aspirin’s effects, shown by the number of cancer deaths of those over 65 “falling by 7.08 percentage points.”

The reliability of the findings is backed by universities across Britain and even external input from Kumamoto University in Japan has helped the results make it into the Lancet.

All the publicity of these landmark findings has attracted the attention of Professor Gerry Fowkes. He said: “Our research suggests that aspirin should not be prescribed to the general population, although it does have benefits for people with established conditions.” At least six previous studies, lead by Fowkes, have indicated that frequent doses of aspirin could lead to serious health implications and have prompted many of the “worried well” to take the pills.

Aspirin does have side effects. Taking aspirin for longer might have a bigger impact on cancer, but could also put such a person in great danger if they are injured and begin to bleed heavily: aspirin is partly comprised of an anti-coagulant, stopping the blood from clotting. In short, don’t start popping the pills just yet.

WebMD has a good round up of Aspirin’s benefits and drawbacks, it is worth a read. It covers how the drug may protect you in ways we do not yet understand but it is a complicated issue. To quote one segment:

” ‘Aspirin is the one drug I would take to a desert island with me,’ says Mark Fendrick, MD, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. ‘It costs two cents a day and its benefits are amazing. And if it had no side effects at all, we could give it to everybody.’ But Dr. Fendrick worries that the ever-growing list of diseases and disorders that aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) seem to combat drowns out information about the risks of this ‘wonder’ drug. “

What stand out about this study, and others that have followed it before is the continued mystery of our medicine. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid is an analgesic used to relieve mild to moderate pains. It was first created in 1853 by French scientist Charles Frederic Gerhardt. Its popularity remained strong until the advent of paracetamol but is still used by millions across the world to help with an afternoon migraine or a stiff thigh muscle. We have fallen into this idea that one drug is associated with one use. This study tells us to carry on investigating the medicine we are maybe too familiar with because we may just find something even more amazing that some convenient relief for a headache.

 

[Cover Image via Wikimedia Commons]

 

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Human lungs grown in the lab for the first time

Scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) have grown lungs in the laboratory for the first time. By taking parts of damaged lungs from children, they have been able to nurture a set of lungs to the point of being able to react to air.

I found this story through New York Daily News and was then able to get the original release from UTMB. This news item is of particular significance because it brings about two scientific breakthroughs.

Firstly, an organ as complex as a lung has not been artificially created in a lab environment in the past.  There is a bucketful of reasons why artificial organ growth is challenging but these researchers have been able to break down some of those barriers.

Secondly, their methods were very interesting. Taking an ‘abnormal’ approach allowed them to create something relatively ‘normal’. By using two lungs taken from two separate children who died, the researchers created a scaffold from one lung to use as a ‘soft-tissue backbone’ that could have the damaged tissue from the second child’s lung grafted on to it.

Submerging the grafted lung into a nutritional solution for one month to allow the cells to repair, spread, grow, and become somewhat functional. After this, the scientists took out the lungs and pumped them full of air, to which a lung responded by receiving the air, seen when the tiny air sacs- the alveoli-  expanded.

Reconstructed lungs

The lungs after being stripped of material, ready to be used as a scaffold (left). The lungs after being submerged 30 days (right).

While this work can be considered a revolution in artificial organ creation, any resulting impact to those who need an organ transplant is still a while away. It is a step forward nonetheless.

“My students will be doing the work when I’m old and retired and can’t hold a pipette anymore,” says Professor Joan Nichols, who headed the team responsible for the experiment. More complex lungs will need to be grown before any sort of animal trials can begin, not forgetting an exhaustive list of clinical trials in humans.

Perhaps with collaboration with stem cell researchers, this kind of work can have a prosperous outcome for all. Finding some way to utilise stem cells’ ability to adapt to very specific purposes could improve artificial organ growth times and the overall effectiveness of the organ in question.

“In terms of different cell types, the lung is probably the most complex of all organs — the cells near the entrance are very different from those deep in the lung,” said Dr. Joaquin Cortiella who leads the UTMB group.

“If we can make a good lung for people, we can also make a good model for injury.”

The brilliance of this news should not be shadowed by the long road ahead. While the lung is one of the most complex organs in terms of cell complexity and diversity, these sort of promising results are good news for those on the always over-encumbered transplant lists.

[Cover Image via Creative Commons]

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