Aspirin is back in the news again following recent studies that show aspirin and other commonly used painkillers may help guard against skin cancer. I asked Jody Victor® to tell us all about it.
Jody Victor®: Previous studies have already suggested that non-steroidal anti-inflammation drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can reduce your risk of developing some cancers due to their anti-inflammatory properties. A recent Aarhus University Hospital study in Denmark of nearly 200,000 men and women found that those who took aspirin and ibuprofen were less likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma or malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. People who took daily aspirin and painkillers reduced their risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 15 percent and of malignant melanoma by 13 percent. The risk of basal cell carcinoma (the most common form linked to sun exposure) was no different among aspirin users and nonusers. Sigrun Alba Johannesdottir, head of the Danish study, stated, “We hope that the potential cancer-protective effect of NSAIDs will inspire more research on skin cancer prevention.”
“Aspirin” has been considered a wonder drug since 400 BC when Hippocrates, a Greek physician, wrote about a bitter powder extracted from willow bark that could ease aches and pains and reduce fevers. The willow bark remedy is also mentioned in texts from ancient Sumer, Lebanon, and Assyria. Native Americans used an infusion of the bark for fever and other medicinal purposes for centuries. In 1763, Reverend Edward Stone, a vicar from England, noted that the bark of the willow was effective in reducing a fever.
The active extract of the bark, called salicin, from the Latin name for the white willow (salix alba), was isolated to its crystalline form in 1828 by Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, and Raffaele Piria, an Italian chemist. They were able to convert the willow bark substance into a sugar and a second component, which on oxidation becomes salicylic acid. In 1832, the French chemist Charles Gerhardt experimented with salicin and created salicylic acid. During the next decade other chemists experimented with synthesizing salicylic acid. In all of these experiments the chemists dropped their work because the side effects from their extracts caused gastric irritation, bleeding, diarrhea, and even death when consumed in high doses.
In 1897, Felix Hoffmann, a chemist at Friedrich Bayer & Co., began work on salicylic acid to help his father who was in great pain from arthritis and could not stand the side effects of salicylic acid. He obtained acetylsalicylic acid by a reaction of salicylic acid and acetic anhydride, essentially repeating earlier attempts at synthesizing the compound from willow leaves and bark. Hoffmann substituted acetic anhydride for acetyl chloride. He made some of his formula and gave it to his father with good results and less side effects. Hoffmann’s synthesis served as the basis for Bayer’s claim to the discovery of aspirin.
In 1899, Bayer distributed Hoffmann’s aspirin powder to physicians to give to their patients. Eleven days after developing aspirin, Hoffmann developed an acetylated derivative of morphine called “Heroin”. Initially heroin was the more successful of the two painkillers. But as heroin’s addictiveness became more obvious, aspirin stepped to the forefront of painkillers. In 1900, they introduced aspirin in water-soluble tablets- the first medication to be sold in this form.
In 1948, Dr. Lawrence Craven, a California physician, noticed that the 400 men he prescribed aspirin to hadn’t suffered any heart attacks. He recommended to all patients and colleagues that “an aspirin a day” could dramatically reduce the risk of heart attack. And it was not until the 1970s that the mechanism of action of aspirin and similar drugs called NSAIDs was fully understood.
Today aspirin is recognized as having many health benefits. Apart from being a painkiller, it is an anti-platelet medicine, which means it reduces the risk of blood clots forming. The benefits of aspirin do not always come without side effects, however. The most common side effect is stomach irritation, which can lead to bleeding in some cases, especially in the elderly. Aspirin can cause breathing problems in asthma sufferers. The risk of side effects is increased because for aspirin to be effective, it needs to be taken every day, often for life. Not everyone will suffer from these side effects, but because of the risk aspirin is not recommended for long-term use except for people who have an established heart condition, or who have suffered a stroke. If you are considering taking aspirin, talk to your doctor first.
All the Best!