Regular use of aspirin might lower the risk of Hodgkin’s disease, scientists report Tuesday.
More research is needed to prove whether the link is real.
Even if it is, Hodgkins’ disease is too rare a cancer to ever recommend aspirin as a preventive, scientists caution. After all, the pills have side effects. Instead, the research may point toward better understanding of how this cancer forms, which then might lead to better treatment.
Millions of Americans already take low-dose aspirin to help prevent heart attacks, and studies suggest it also may modestly lower the risk of a few cancers, most notably colon cancer.
Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health uncovered aspirin’s possible connection with Hodgkin’s — a lymph system cancer diagnosed in 7,600 Americans each year — while studying what role a certain virus plays in the malignancy.
To hunt risk factors, they matched 565 Hodgkin’s patients with people of similar age and demographics who didn’t have the cancer.
Those who regularly used aspirin — the equivalent of two or more regular-strength tablets a week for five years — had a 40 percent lower risk of Hodgkin’s, researchers reported Tuesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Disease linked to inflammation
Hodgkin’s disease is linked to inflammation. Aspirin not only calms inflammation, but it is thought to inactivate a protein, called a transcription factor, which is important for Hodgkin’s cells to survive, said epidemiologist Ellen Chang, the study’s lead author.
Other painkillers don’t affect that protein, and the study found no benefit from other anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen.
However, acetaminophen is a different type of painkiller, and the study found risk of Hodgkin’s was actually 70 percent higher among regular acetaminophen users.
The researchers caution consumers not to be frightened by the acetaminophen finding, because they’re concerned it could be wrong. The Hodgkin’s patients may have used acetaminophen because of early symptoms of their cancer, thus mixing up the research, Chang said.
“There’s no clear biologic reason why acetaminophen would be associated with higher Hodgkin’s disease risk,” said Chang, now with Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
But “it makes sense that aspirin could be associated with lower Hodgkin’s risk” because “aspirin has this unique property” of transcription-factor inactivation, she said.
The study raises an interesting hypothesis about aspirin, but just how strong a role the transcription factor plays is controversial, said Dr. Ernest Hawk of the National Cancer Institute.
“Even if it is confirmed, these results do not mean that anybody should take aspirin to prevent cancer,” stressed American Cancer Society epidemiologist Eric Jacobs. After all, aspirin can have some serious side effects, including bleeding and digestive ulcers.
Both cancer specialists downplayed the acetaminophen finding.