Health

Researchers launch clinical trial to see if aspirin could treat aggressive breast cancer

Could ASPIRIN fight breast cancer? Scientists launch trial to see if cheap painkiller can boost survival odds of women struck down with aggressive form of disease

  • Researchers are testing aspirin on patients with triple negative breast cancer 
  • The trial is the first to test if drug can make tumours sensitive to immunotherapy
  • Successful results could lead to further clinical trials of aspirin and avelumab 


Patients with an aggressive form of breast cancer will be given aspirin to see if it can boost their survival chances in a new trial.

Researchers hope the cheap and widely available painkiller will save lives when combined with standard treatment.

It is the first clinical study to test if aspirin can make tumours more sensitive to immunotherapy drugs in triple negative breast cancer.

A previous review of 118 studies covering 18 different cancers found patients taking aspirin for other health reasons were 20 per cent more likely to survive.

Aspirin is being trialled as part of a potential new treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer

Lab experiments also found pairing immunotherapy with aspirin helps to control tumour growth in mice more successfully than immunotherapy alone.

Dr Anne Armstrong, from the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, will trial immunotherapy drug avelumab with and without aspirin before patients receive surgery and chemotherapy.

If the results are positive, it could lead to further trials in women with incurable secondary triple negative breast cancer, meaning cancer cells that started in the breast have spread to other parts of the body.

Around 8,000 women are diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in the UK each year.

It is a less common but often more aggressive type of breast cancer that disproportionately affects younger women and black women.

WHAT IS TRIPLE NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER?

Triple negative breast cancer is a form of the disease that does not have receptors for the hormones oestrogen or progesterone, or the protein HER2.

This makes it trickier to treat due to the tumour not responding to these hormonal or protein therapies.

Triple negative breast cancer makes up around 10-to-20 per cent of all forms of the disease.

It tends to be more aggressive than other breast tumours, with patients having a worse prognosis.  

The condition is more common in those under 40 and black women. 

It is diagnosed via a sample of the cancerous cells.

Symptoms are similar to other forms of breast cancer. 

These can include:

  • Lump or thickening in the breast
  • Change in the size, shape or feel of the breast
  • Dimpling of the skin
  • Change in the shape of the nipple
  • Rash or blood-stained discharge coming from the nipple
  • Swelling in the armpit 

Treatment usually involves surgery, chemo and radiotherapy.

Chemo may be given first to shrink the tumour before a patient goes under the knife.

It may also be given after the operation to prevent the disease returning. 

Dr Armstrong, a consultant medical oncologist, said: ‘Our earlier research has suggested that aspirin can make certain types of immunotherapy more effective by preventing the cancer from making substances that weaken the immune response.

‘Anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin could hold the key to increasing the effectiveness of immunotherapy when used at the same time.

‘Trialling the use of a drug like aspirin is exciting because it is so widely available and inexpensive to produce.

‘We hope our trial will show that, when combined with immunotherapy, aspirin can enhance its effects and may ultimately provide a safe new way to treat breast cancer.’ 

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research at charity Breast Cancer Now, which is funding the study, said: ‘The 8,000 women diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in the UK each year face the frightening reality of limited treatment options – we urgently need to address this.

‘Research has already suggested aspirin could improve outcomes for many cancer patients and we hope that Dr Armstrong’s trial will show the same to be true for patients with triple negative breast cancer, so that we can prevent more lives being lost to this devastating disease.’ 

Triple negative breast cancer refers to a diverse group of tumours that lack the three molecules used to classify the disease: the oestrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).

While these molecules have successfully been used to develop a variety of targeted treatments for other types of breast cancer, their absence in triple negative breast cancer means that treatment options for this type are usually limited to a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, and can come with gruelling side effects.

Cancer cells can evade the immune system to survive, but immunotherapies are medicines that help the body to recognise and attack cancer cells.

Some immunotherapies are already used in secondary triple negative breast cancer treatment, but they do not work for everyone.  

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