When American scientists set out to discover the extent that aspirin reduced deaths from heart attacks, they found that among the aspirin-takers there were fewer deaths from bowel cancer.
Newcastle University researchers are about to embark on a Europe-wide project to see if prescribing aspirin could reduce the chance of getting bowel cancer.
The pounds 300,000 survey, funded by the EC, will cover 14 countries and follow 200 people, initially until the end of 1995. Half will take aspirin and half a placebo. All will be tested once a year.
To speed the survey, researchers will concentrate on a special group suffering from a rare genetic defect which makes them susceptible to bowel cancer, a condition known as polyposis.
John Burn, Professor of Clinical Genetics, said: 'If we just used a simple cross section of the population, most would be unlikely to develop polyps, or lumps on the lining of the large intestine, which can lead to cancer.'
Most people who develop bowel cancer do so in their late fifties or sixties. People with polyposis, caused by a defective gene known as the APC gene, tend to show the first signs of disease in their teens.
Professor Burn said: 'Normal people aren't affected by the cancer until later in life because the first, non-malignant stage is so long. With the APC gene defect, people miss out on that first stage. It's as if they go straight on to stage two, where the cells start to make mistakes as they divide, which can lead to malignancy.'
This form of cancer is treatable by removing a section of the large intestine. Aspirin could, in some cases, make surgery unnecessary, or delay it for several years.