Aspirin May Improve Survival, Liver Function in Some Patients With Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Taking aspirin was found to improve liver function and extend survival among patients with hepatocellular carcinoma – the most common primary liver cancer.
BY Jessica Skarzynski
PUBLISHED September 18, 2019
After patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) underwent transarterial embolization (TAE), taking aspirin was found to improve their liver function and extend survival, according to a retrospective review published in the American Journal of Roentgenology.

In an interview with CURE, lead researcher F. Edward Boas, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, explained what prompted this review. “Cancer recurrence is common after local therapies, such as surgery, ablation, or embolization,” he said.

In some cases, this local therapy can stimulate tumor growth elsewhere in the body or damage normal cells, causing some patients to die of organ failure, rather than from the initial cancer they were being treated for.

“We wanted to know whether we could improve outcomes after local therapies, by combining the local therapy with a drug that blocks some of the harmful side effects of the therapy,” said Boas. “It's very difficult to get [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)] approval for a new drug, so we decided to look at drugs that are already FDA approved for something else.”

This practice – called drug repurposing – finds new uses for old drugs and could offer previously unseen benefits, Boas explained.

“Our cancer patients take many different non-chemotherapy drugs, so we wanted to see if any of those drugs improved results after local therapies. The biggest effect that we saw was that aspirin improved survival after embolization of hepatocellular carcinoma (the most common type of primary liver cancer).”

According to the review, overall survival jumped from 23 months in patients who didn’t take aspirin, to 57 months in patients who did. While this could have something to do with reduced liver inflammation, Boas noted that these findings were specific to this patient group.

“It's important to note that we only saw this result with aspirin in the setting of hepatocellular carcinoma being treated with embolization. We do not know if there is any benefit for other types of cancer, or other types of treatment.”

The use of aspirin also comes with its own warnings, Boas said. “In addition, aspirin can cause bleeding and stomach ulcers, so patients should talk to their doctor before deciding to take aspirin every day.”

Now that this connection has been found, Boas said he and his team would like to perform a clinical trial to confirm their results, given the limitations of a retrospective review like theirs.

“We would also like to find drugs that improve local therapies for other types of cancer,” he said. “Unfortunately, it's challenging to get funding for this type of research. Since aspirin is so cheap, pharmaceutical companies are not interested in funding trials. And since aspirin is an old drug, it's not that interesting to basic science granting agencies, either.”
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