A New Weapon

Between reprogrammed cells, innovative vaccines, and mechanized sperm, our arsenal in the fight against cancer has never been more formidable or varied. However, one of the latest weapons to emerge might already be in your medicine cabinet.

Aspirin has long been considered something of a wonder drug, able to do everything from treat headaches to stave off heart attacks. Now, scientists believe it may also be able to prevent cancer cells from spreading after a tumor has already formed in the body.

For a tumor to spread, its cells must travel through the bloodstream to a new location where they then settle and grow, all without being detected by the immune system. Helping them during this process are cells called platelets. These cells do everything from cloak the cancer cells during their trip to help them receive nutrients and oxygen once they reach their new location.

In tests with mice, Elisabeth Battinelli, a hematologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, found that aspirin actually prevented platelets from assisting malignant cells on their journey to a new home, thus making it more difficult for the cancer to spread.

Not for Everybody

Each year, 1.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. alone, and nearly 600,000 die as a result of their disease. Unfortunately, aspirin won't be able to help all of those people – in fact, it could actually worsen the health of some by causing side effects like bleeding.

Right now, knowing who will benefit from aspirin and who won't is something of a crapshoot.

“It's challenging to develop a single molecular test that will tell you if someone will respond [to aspirin] or not because it's become clear that there is no single pathway by which aspirin works,” Andrew Chan, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told Scientific American.

Researchers are already looking into the genes involved in aspirin's affect on platelets, and they hope to develop a genetic test to tell whether aspirin would be an effective treatment for an individual. Until then, studies of larger, more varied groups of people should provide insight into the cancer-fighting prowess of this common yet extraordinary medication.

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