Nightly News   |  October 27, 2011

Aspirin helps reduce colon cancer, study shows

A daily aspirin may help the general population reduce its risk for colon cancer, a study from Newcastle University suggests. NBC News’ Robert Bazell has the story.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

WILLIAMS: Good evening.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: When they write the history of modern medicine , including all the costs, the exotic medications, all our fancy new weapons against illness, it just might be that the most simple medication in our arsenal, the most modest product in the medicine cabinet may turn out to be the best and most cost effective and that's aspirin . It's almost hard to believe it's all we ever took for a headache or aches or pains. That was before we discovered its uses in heart attack prevention, stroke prevention, and just now the news is breaking tonight about its use against colon cancer . Put it this way, a bottle of generic aspirin , $4.29. Medical research, tens of billions of dollars. A household item that could prevent a range of illnesses, priceless. That's how we begin the broadcast tonight with our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell .

ROBERT BAZELL reporting: It is more powerful evidence that one of the oldest and cheapest medicines on Earth may be one of the most beneficial. British researchers studied people like Keith Reiger , who have inherited the gene for Lynch Syndrome , which puts him at very high risk for colon cancer . Reiger and his father have had colon cancer . Two of his three children inherited the gene. One died at age 22 from colon cancer . In the study, 861 people with Lynch Syndrome took either two 300 milligram tablets of aspirin or a placebo, and scientists followed them for two years after they stopped taking the aspirin .

Sir JOHN BURN (Newcastle University): We reduced by 60 percent the numbers of colon cancers in the people who actually took aspirin for two years.

BAZELL: Because the same gene that people inherit with Lynch Syndrome also plays a role in the more common form of the disease, researchers assume that aspirin might help the general population reduce colon cancer risk. But aspirin is not without its own potential side effects.

Dr. ERIC JACOBS (American Cancer Society): There are also risks, particularly increased risks, of serious gastrointestinal bleeding.

BAZELL: The ancient Greeks used the precursor of aspirin taken from willow trees. The current form was first sold in 1899 . It costs pennies and it reduces fever, pain, inflammation and cuts risk for heart attack, stroke and we now know, cancer. Aspirin has become such a wonder drug that ads now remind people its main use is pain relief.

BAZELL: Keith Reiger and his family, even those without the gene, now take aspirin . But they and doctors say that should never be a substitute for colonoscopies, which can even more dramatically cut the risk for this deadly disease. Robert Bazell , NBC News, New York.