Aspirin May Cut Risk of Adult Leukemia

Study finds 50% lower rate in postmenopausal women

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MONDAY, June 16, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Postmenopausal women who take aspirin two or more times each week may lower their risk of developing leukemia by more than 50 percent compared with women who do not take the drug.

Although these results are preliminary, this could signal yet another usage for the miracle drug that was invented more than a century ago and already has been shown to have a beneficial effect on colon cancer and heart disease.

"I was very excited about the findings because leukemia is one of those cancers that has a high fatality rate," says Julie Ross, senior author of a paper appearing in the June 13 edition of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. "If this were to hold up in other studies, we're seeing a real reduction in risk."

"It certainly is a teaser in the sense that there seems to be a 50 percent reduction in the incidence of leukemia," says Alan Kinniburgh, vice president of research at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He nevertheless adds that "more studies are needed to see if this holds true."

Little is known about the causes of adult leukemia, which accounts for about 5 percent of all newly diagnosed malignancies in the United States. Without information on causes, little can be done in the way of prevention. "With blood cancers, we don't really have programs to give to patients to try to avoid these diseases," Kinniburgh says. "The origin of most leukemias is unknown."

The authors analyzed information on 28,244 women who participated in the Iowa Women's Health Study, which looked at overall health, lifestyle, behaviors and incidence of cancer.

The women were sent a mail survey in 1992 asking them, among other things, how often they took aspirin, other NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or arthritis medicine. All of the women were cancer-free (except possibly for skin cancer) at the beginning of the study.

The study authors then cross-referenced these same women with the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program, which tracks cancer diagnoses in certain areas, including Iowa. Between 1993 and 2000, 81 women in the group had developed leukemia.

Women who reported using aspirin at least two times a week had a more than 50 percent lower risk of developing leukemia compared to women who reported no aspirin use. There were other small effects depending on what drugs the respondents used, but they were not statistically significant and "the protective effect appears to be with aspirin," says Ross, an associate professor of pediatrics and a member of the University of Minnesota Cancer Center in Minneapolis.

The study has several advantages. It is the first prospective study to look at aspirin use in relation to adult leukemia, meaning it looked forward rather than backward. It also compared use of aspirin to other NSAIDs.

Nevertheless, there are some limitations. For one thing, the researchers didn't know exactly how much aspirin the women were taking, or for how long.

No one knows why aspirin might have a protective effect against this or any other type of cancer. "I have no idea what the mechanism might be," Ross says. "It might come down to something such as platelet aggregation. When platelets clot, growth factors are released locally. Just by reducing that activity, are you reducing overall risk?"

Kinniburgh adds aspirin may have an effect on certain inflammatory processes taking place in leukemia.

Ross has just submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health to conduct a large case-control study of adult leukemia and aspirin regimens.

More information

For more on adult leukemia, visit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society or the National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: Julie Ross, Ph.D., associate professor, pediatrics, University of Minnesota Cancer Center, Minneapolis; Alan Kinniburgh, Ph.D., vice president, research, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, White Plains, N.Y.; June 13, 2003, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention
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