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Ancient Drug Meets Personalized Medicine

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It’s pretty amazing to me that we’re still discovering new uses for a drug as old as aspirin. The active metabolite of aspirin—salicylic acid—has been used to treat ailments for several millennia. In fact, the ancient Egyptians and Greeks even used teas and other potions brewed from the bark of the willow tree, which is rich in salicylic acid, to treat their fevers, headaches, and pains.

photo of round white pills marked ASPIRINToday, as many of you may already know, low-dose aspirin can play a key role preventing heart attacks and strokes; it’s often prescribed as a daily therapy for people who’ve suffered a heart attack or are at high risk of one. But it doesn’t stop there. Scientists are now exploring whether this pharmaceutical multitasker can also suppress cancer.

In recent trials, researchers have been testing aspirin for people with colon or colorectal cancer, the third most deadly cancer in the United States. However, they weren’t sure who would benefit. Recently, NIH-supported researchers based in Boston showed that taking aspirin boosted survival among patients diagnosed with colon cancer. But here’s the 21st century catch: the aspirin only had an impact in the 15-20% of patients whose tumors carried a mutation in the PIK3CA gene. (Note: This is not a mutation we inherit from our parents, it is a harmful mutation that arises spontaneously in tumors during the course of cancer development.)