Aspirin has been around a long time. It was first marketed by a German pharmaceutical company Bayer in 1898 as a cough suppressant and a ‘non-addictive’ substitute for morphine. Although acetylsalicylic acid (the chemical name for aspirin) was only first manufactured in the late 1800s, plants such as willow which are rich in salicylate have appeared in antiquity, as medicines for treating fever, inflammation and pain. They are mentioned in Egyptian pharonic pharmacology papyri from the 2nd millennium BCE and Hippocrates, the father of medicine, referred to their use around 400 BCE. Through the ages, willow bark extract has been used for its healing properties.
With the rigors of modern day pharmaceutical control one wonders whether aspirin would ever have been marketed, having been rejected by the stringent regulatory codes which are now in place.
Aspirin is known to cause gastrointestinal upset and even life-threatening haemorrhage and in some patients, dangerous and even fatal allergic reactions.
However aspirin is now at the forefront of managing acute cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and more recently, its anti-cancer benefits have also been described.
Loading doses of aspirin are now being used to treat acute heart attacks and stroke with its benefits having been consistently proven in medical literature. It is also used in low dose as a preventative measure for heart disease, strokes and TIAs (transient ischaemic attacks) as well as other vascular conditions.
In the late 90s several studies showed that regular low dose aspirin may also be preventative for colorectal cancer (bowel cancer) although its recognised and potentially dangerous side-effects have prevented its wide scale use.
More recently, a presentation at the 2015 European Cancer Congress in Vienna has suggested that its anti-cancer benefits may be much wider than previously recognised. A study of 14 000 cancer patients in the Netherlands has shown that regular aspirin users were twice as likely to be alive 4 years later. The trial coordinator Dr Martine Frouws from Leiden University commented that this ‘very cheap and off-patent drug’ may have a dramatic effect on overall cancer survival. It seems that gastrointestinal cancer including bowel, rectum and oesophagus is where aspirin will have its greatest benefits and studies are currently under way to try and determine why aspirin has this effect and which patients are most likely to benefit.
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