Aspirin, one of the only medicines to deserve the title "wonder drug", gained another potential role yesterday as a preventive treatment against prostate cancer, adding to its claim to be the most versatile agent in the pharmaceutical armamentarium.

Aspirin, one of the only medicines to deserve the title "wonder drug", gained another potential role yesterday as a preventive treatment against prostate cancer, adding to its claim to be the most versatile agent in the pharmaceutical armamentarium.

Researchers at Hammersmith Hospital in west London reported that it may help prevent prostate cancer, the fourth highest cause of cancer deaths in the Britain, after laboratory findings showed aspirin suppresses a protein which causes the disease to spread.

Prostate cancer kills almost 10,000 men a year and its incidence is rising. The research, published in the British Journal of Urology, shows that prostate cancer cells produce four times as much of the protein COX2, which is known to cause cancer to spread, as normal cells. The findings were described as "really encouraging" by Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer and director of research and development at Hammersmith Hospital.

He added: "It appears that aspirin-like drugs could provide the key to future treatments for this condition."

Aspirin, well-known as a preventive treatment against heart attacks for people with angina, is now winning increasing scientific backing for its role against cancer. Evidence from a US study of 90,000 nurses shows that it may protect against bowel cancer, and other studies have suggested a protective effect against lung and oesophageal cancer.

In addition to these effects, studies have shown aspirin can prevent pre-eclampsia, a complication of pregnancy, and it is an established treatment in diabetes for preventing blindness, heart disease and disorders of the peripheral circulation associated with impaired blood flow. There is also some evidence that aspirin, which thins the blood, may help to prevent dementia caused by impaired blood flow in the brain and protect against Alzheimer's disease.

At a Dublin conference in November, evidence will also be presented on its role in preventing blood clots in longdistance air travellers.

On cancer, new research has suggested that aspirin's protective effect may be linked with its anti-inflammatory action. Professor Angus Dalgleish, of St George's Hospital, south London, has suggested that the spread of cancer is linked with the failure of the body's immune system, triggered by long-term inflammation caused by toxic agents in the food we eat or the air we breathe. Regular use of an anti-inflammatory drug such as aspirin might reduce inflammation and boost the immune response, providing protection against a range of cancers.

A large clinical trial is now needed to test the effectiveness of aspirin against cancer, according to Professor Dalgleish. But he is already sufficiently persuaded to take a 300mg dose of soluble aspirin daily, although this should not be done (because of the risk of sideeffects) without medical advice.

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