People with head and neck cancers could more than triple their chances of survival simply by taking everyday painkillers, a new study suggests.
Common and cheap painkillers such as ibuprofen and aspirin were found to boost survival rates from 25 per cent to 78 per cent if the cancer contained one specific gene, found in about one-third of head and neck cancers.
Head and neck cancers are diagnosed in about 12,000 people in Britain – and kill 4,000 – each year.
Researchers at University of California San Francisco examined the survival rates for patients five years after diagnosis.
They found regular use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) had a dramatic impact for about a third of cancer sufferers.
Everyone in the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, who saw this marked increase in survival rates had the mutated gene PIK3CA.
For those whose gene had not been altered in the tumour, taking painkillers had no effect.
NSAIDs are a class of drugs which not only reduce pain but also can reduce inflammation. Aspirin and ibuprofen are the most common varieties; the other popular painkiller, paracetamol, works by a different process and is not classified as an NSAID.
Dr Jennifer Grandis, a professor of head and neck surgery, and senior author of the paper, said: “Our results suggest that the use of NSAIDs could significantly improve outcomes for not only head and neck cancer patients, but also patients with other cancers that contained the PIK3CA mutation.
“The magnitude of the apparent advantage is strong, and could potentially have a positive impact on human health.”
The researchers looked at 266 patients from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre whose tumours were surgically removed.
Among the patients who regularly used NSAIDs, 93 per cent used aspirin at some point. Most of the regular users only began regularly taking the drug after their cancer was diagnosed.
Although it has not yet been definitively proven how taking NSAIDs could improve cancer survival, the study’s authors suggested the drugs might block the growth of head and neck tumours by reducing the production of an inflammatory molecule called prostaglandin E2.
Professor Justin Stebbing, NIHR Research Professor of Cancer Medicine and Medical Oncology at Imperial College London, said: “We know that inflammation is really important in cancer and can be used as part of the processes by which cancer cells spread and grow.
“Studies in colon, breast and other tumours have shown that anti-inflammatories may be helpful in patients with cancers that have certain mutations in them.
“This study in head and neck cancer takes that knowledge further with anti-inflammatories acting on two enzymes: the COX and PI3K proteins.”
Prof Stebbing said more work was needed to understand whether doctors should start telling cancer patients to take NSAIDs, and how often and in what dose.
A clinical trial to attempt to replicate the findings of the study is currently being designed.
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