Aspirin for Cancer Prevention

Even as the U.S. government continues to spend huge sums of money underwriting cancer research, public health agencies are failing to make people aware of a proven, well-tolerated, low-cost anti-cancer drug: aspirin.

Even as the U.S. government continues to spend huge sums of money underwriting cancer research, public health agencies are failing to make people aware of a proven, well-tolerated, low-cost anti-cancer drug: aspirin.


Substantial research over the last 20 or more years has built a very solid scientific case for the proposition that to reduce your odds of getting a wide variety of cancers, you need only take small daily prophylactic doses of non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the best-known of which are aspirin and ibuprofen. (Note that acetominophen is an analgesic without the same anti-inflammatory properties as NSAIDs and has not been shown to reduce cancer.)

Scientists have known for the better part of a century that inflammatory processes are involved in carcinogenesis. NSAIDs appear to act via inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis through blockade of the enzyme cyclooxygenase-2 (aka COX-2), which is often overexpressed in cancers, and possibly through enhancement of apoptosis.

Regardless of how they act, there's no arguing with the clinical data. Harris et al. reported in 2005 (in Oncology Reports) the results of an extensive meta-analysis of 91 epidemiological studies involving aspirin, ibuprofen, and other NSAIDs. Said the authors: 

Daily intake of NSAIDs, primarily aspirin, produced risk reductions of 63% for colon, 39% for breast, 36% for lung, and 39% for prostate cancer. Significant risk reductions were also observed for esophageal (73%), stomach (62%), and ovarian cancer (47%). NSAID effects became apparent after five or more years of use and were stronger with longer duration. Observed protective effects were also consistently stronger for gastrointestinal malignancies (esophagus, stomach, and colon). Results for pancreatic, urinary bladder, and renal cancer were inconsistent. Initial epidemiologic studies of malignant melanoma, Hodgkin's disease, and adult leukemia also found that NSAIDs are protective. A few studies suggest that ibuprofen has stronger anticancer effects than aspirin, particularly against breast and lung cancer.

A 2010 study by Brasky et al. in Cancer Causes & Control found "Recent aspirin use was inversely associated with breast cancer risk." The risk reduction was on the order of 20% (even higher in women with a lifetime history of regular aspirin use).

A 2001 meta-analysis by Khuder and Mutgi in the British Journal of Cancer found NSAID usage was associated with either a 13% or a 22% reduction in breast cancer risk depending on the type of studies surveyed. 

A 2012 case-control study by Lo-Ciganic et al. in Epidemiology found that daily aspirin use was associated with a 28% lower risk of ovarian cancer. 

Daily NSAID use was found to correlate with a 28% reduction in mortality due to colorectal cancer in postmenopausal women, in the 2012 study by Coghill et al. published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention

With all this data available, you'd think the makers of aspirin and ibuprofen would be touting anti-cancer benefits of their products (which they can legally do, given the extensive nature of the scientific evidence), and you'd think the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and other agencies charged with promoting public health would be quick to spread the word. Not so, however. There's too much money to be made treating cancer, after it takes root. For example, Pfizer subsidiary Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (makers of Advil) also sells the anti-cancer drug Torisel, which, at $76,000 per gram is several times more expensive than plutonium. Likewise, Bayer makes anti-cancer drug Nexavar, which costs $69,000 for a year of treatment. With these and other exorbitantly priced drugs at risk, there is no incentive for the Bayers or Pfizers of the world to undercut future profits by telling people about the anti-cancer benefits of cheap over-the-counter NSAIDs.

That's why I urge you to tell everyone you know to read the literature on the risks (such as tinnitus and gastrointestinal bleeding) and benefits (cancer prevention) of NSAIDs, and decide: Is it better to spend ten cents a day on aspirin and/or ibuprofen, or is it better to wait and have to buy the plutonium-priced "medicines" that may or may not cure your cancer, but are sure to leave you penniless when and if you do die?

To me, the answer is pretty obvious.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.