Forget diamonds - aspirin could soon be a girl's best friend. New studies show that, at least in the laboratory, this common anti-inflammatory drug may help reduce the risk of endometrial cancer.
"What we found was that the aspirin reduced levels of a protein that would otherwise keep uterine cells from undergoing the necessary process of apoptosis, or cell death," says study co-author Jeanne L Becker. She's an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of South Florida School of Medicine, where the research was conducted. When cells that should die don't, says Becker, the result can be an overgrowth of tissue that helps set the stage for cancer to develop.
"Essentially, the aspirin helps the cells kill themselves - allowing them to undergo the natural process of apoptosis," says Becker. With cell death in check, she says, the malignancy may never have the opportunity to develop. The new research involved growing human endometrial cancer cells in a lab for about 96 hours. Similar to the way human studies are done, the cells were then separated into two groups - one that was treated with a placebo-type substance, the other treated with the aspirin compound. The aspirin group was further divided into subgroups, according to the amount of medication applied to the cells.
The result - just published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology - clearly showed that the amount of the drug given counted.
"The higher the dosage of aspirin, the more growth inhibition we saw," says Becker.
Becker says one reason for this may lie in how aspirin reduces inflammation, a body response that researchers have already linked to colon cancer, as well as heart disease.
"One of our thoughts about the aspirin is that it could very well be working through the inflammatory pathways to encourage normal cell death," says Becker.
While experts are intrigued by the findings, at least some believe there are many miles to go before they know for sure if aspirin really can work to prevent cancer.
"[It] is an exciting observation that might lead to findings, which would allow the use of a common medication to prevent a common gynaecologic malignancy," says Dr Dan Smith, director of ob-gyn oncology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre in New York City. However, he adds that "the mechanisms for activity are discussed, but not proven" - and that proof is not likely to come until results are duplicated in patient studies.
In the United States endometrial cancer - which affects the lining of the uterus - is the most common female reproductive tract malignancy. Although most cases are diagnosed at an early stage, according to the American Cancer Society about 6 400 women die of this disease each year. About 37 000 new cases are diagnosed annually.
The good news: Because there are pre-malignant stages doctors can identify, experts say endometrial cancer is a prime candidate for interventional or even preventive therapy.
"It's an exciting idea that aspirin - one of the simplest and oldest drugs - could also be one of the most powerful in terms of cancer prevention," says Becker.
What You Can Do
Perhaps the best way to protect yourself against endometrial cancer right now, say experts, is to stay vigilant about reporting symptoms to your doctor - particularly irregular vaginal bleeding, including spotting between periods, as well as any watery, bloody vaginal discharge. All are particularly worrisome when they occur after menopause - a time when the risk of endometrial cancer increases.
But what about using aspirin to reduce your risks?
"It's already been shown to have important preventive effects in terms of heart disease, so why not take an aspirin a day - I do it," says Becker.
Since aspirin can increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, as well as bleeding within the brain, experts say to check with your doctor before using it on any kind of regular basis.