One of the world’s oldest and cheapest drugs is showing promise in fighting cancer.

A new study has shown patients who regularly took aspirin lived longer than those who didn’t. These individuals had a mutation in a gene that’s thought to play a role in colon cancer. Five years after cancer was diagnosed, 97 percent of aspirin users were still alive, versus 74 percent of those not taking the drug.

Aspirin did not seem to make a difference in patients without the mutation.

The results indicate that aspirin, a simple medicine, might be the cheapest gene-targeting therapy ever found for cancer. About one-sixth of all colon cancer patients have the mutated gene and might be helped by aspirin.

Aspirin costs just pennies a day.

“It’s exciting to think that something that’s already in the medicine cabinet may really have an important effect beyond relieving pain and helping to prevent heart attacks,” said Dr. Andrew Chan of Massachusetts General Hospital. He, along with others from Harvard Medical School, led the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine Thursday.

Colon cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. More than 140,000 new cases and 51,000 deaths are expected this year in the United States.

Previously, several studies suggested that aspirin may help fight cancer. It is usually recommended for people who have colon cancer and others at high risk of developing it. However, it is not advised for wider use or for prevention because it can cause serious stomach bleeding.

This investigation involved 964 people diagnosed with various stages of colon cancer who were among nearly 175,000 participants in two studies at Harvard that began in the 1980s. Most had surgery for cancer and others had chemotherapy. Researchers focused on PIK3CA, a gene involved in a key pathway that fuels cancer’s growth and spread. Aspirin seems to concentrate on that same pathway. Regular aspirin users who had a mutation in the gene cut the risk of dying of colon cancer by 82 percent.

Those dose of aspirin, whether baby or regular, didn’t seem to matter, only whether the drug was regularly used.

Researchers warn that aspirin may not be responsible for improved survival. More studies, doctors suggest, are required.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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