This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special
English. I'm Bob Doughty.
I'm Faith Lapidus. This week, we will
tell the story of aspirin.
have known since ancient times that aspirin can reduce pain and high body
temperature. But that is not all the
drug can do. It has gained important new
uses in recent years. Low amounts may help
prevent health threats from stroke to heart attack. Recently, researchers reported that aspirin
could help patients with one kind of cancer live longer.
At the same time, doctors
warn that acid in aspirin can cause bleeding in the stomach and intestines.
But there is promising evidence of a way to reduce the
risk of bleeding. A newly reported British
study suggests that taking another drug with a small amount of aspirin may help
solve the problem. If that proves true, it
would help thousands of people who are seeking to prevent life-threatening
So, how did
aspirin become so important? The story begins
two thousand years ago with a willow tree. The Greek doctor Hippocrates advised his
patients to chew on the bark and leaves of the willow.
The tree contains
a chemical called salicin. In the
eighteen hundreds, researchers discovered how to make salicylic acid from the
chemical. In eighteen ninety-seven, a
chemist named Felix Hoffmann at Friedrich Bayer and Company in Germany created
acetyl salicylic acid.
became the active substance in a medicine that Bayer called aspirin. The "a" came from acetyl. The "spir" came from the spirea
plant, which also produces salicin. And
the "in"? That is a common way
to end medicine names.
In nineteen eighty-two, a British scientist shared the
Nobel Prize in Medicine in part for discovering how aspirin works. Sir John Vane found that aspirin blocks the
body from making natural substances called prostaglandins.
have several effects on the body. Some
cause pain and the expansion, or swelling, of damaged tissue. Others protect the lining of the stomach and
Prostaglandins also make the heart, kidneys and blood
vessels work well. But there is a
problem. Aspirin works against all
prostaglandins, good and bad.
learned how aspirin interferes with an enzyme. One form of this enzyme makes the prostaglandin that causes pain and
swelling. Another form of the enzyme
creates a protective effect. So aspirin
can reduce pain and swelling in damaged tissues. But it can also harm the inside of the
stomach and small intestine. Sometimes
it can cause bleeding.
Aspirin competes with many other medicines for pain and
fever these days. The competition
includes acetaminophen, the active substance in products like Tylenol. Like the
medicine ibuprofen, aspirin is an NSAID -- a non-steroidal
Many people take aspirin to reduce the risk of a heart
attack or stroke from blood clots. Clots
can block the flow of blood to the heart or brain and cause a heart attack or
stroke. Scientists say aspirin prevents
blood cells called platelets from sticking together to form clots.
A California doctor named Lawrence
Craven first noted this effect about sixty years ago. He observed unusual bleeding in children who
chewed on an aspirin product to ease the pain after a common operation.
Craven believed that the bleeding took place because aspirin prevented blood
from thickening. He thought that this
effect might help prevent heart attacks caused by blood clots.
examined the medical records of eight thousand aspirin users and found no heart
attacks in this group. He invited other
scientists to test his ideas. But it was
years before large studies took place.
Charles Hennekens of Harvard Medical
School led one of the studies. In
nineteen eighty-three, he began to study more than twenty-two thousand healthy
male doctors over forty years of age. Half took an aspirin every other day. The others took what they thought was aspirin. It was only a placebo, a harmless
Five years later, Doctor Hennekens reported that those
who took aspirin reduced their risk of a heart attack. But they had a higher risk of bleeding in the
brain than the other doctors.
recently, a group of experts examined studies of aspirin at the request of
federal health officials in the United States. The experts said people with an increased risk of a heart attack should
take a low-strength aspirin every day.
Aspirin may help someone who is having a
heart attack caused by a blockage in a blood vessel. Aspirin thins the blood, so it may be able to
flow past the blockage. But heart
experts say people should seek emergency help immediately. They say an aspirin is no substitute for
also suggest that aspirin can help with cancer prevention and survival. Several
studies have found that men who take NSAIDS have a decreased risk of prostate
cancer. The prostate is part of the male
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in
Minnesota wanted to see how NSAIDs might affect
prostates that are enlarged but not cancerous. They followed the health of two thousand five
hundred men for twelve years. One-third were taking NSAIDs daily when they entered the
The researchers said these
drugs may delay or stop development of an enlarged prostate. They said the risk
of an enlarged prostate was fifty percent lower in the NSAID users than the
other men. The risk of bladder problems
was thirty-five percent lower.
study found that aspirin blocks the formation of blood vessels that feed cancer
growth. Researchers at Newcastle
University in England explored a biological process that makes blood vessels
researchers studied how aspirin affects the cells found on the inner surface of
blood vessels. They found that a small
amount of aspirin suppressed the way the cells form tubes.
have found that aspirin may help prevent cancers of the stomach, intestines and
colon. Research reported earlier this
year told about people who had colorectal cancer. They found that aspirin users had an almost
thirty percent lower risk of dying from their cancer. That was during an average of eleven years
after the cancer was discovered.
does not help everything, however. It
can cause problems. For example, it can
interfere with other medicines, although this is true of many drugs.
some people should not take aspirin. People who take other blood thinners or have bleeding disorders are
among this group. Pregnant women are
usually told to avoid aspirin.
has shown a link between aspirin use and the disease Reye's
Syndrome. Children's doctors say
patients up to age nineteen should not take anything containing Salicylatic products
when sick with high temperatures.
Reye's Syndrome Foundation warns about aspirin use, especially during the
spread of influenza. In the past,
children have died or suffered permanent harm from Reye's Syndrome during
widespread influenza attacks.
taking low-dose aspirin who fear stomach and intestinal ulcers and bleeding had
some good news a few months ago. The British
medical journal "Lancet" published a study about the drug famotidine, also
known as Pepcid. The study suggested
that famotidine taken with low-dose aspirin may prevent ulcers. This break down of tissue can cause
patients took seventy-five to three hundred twenty-five milligrams of aspirin a
day. After twelve weeks, three percent
of those taking famotidine with the aspirin had stomach ulcers. But fifteen percent of those taking the
placebo and aspirin had them. Upper
intestinal ulcers were found in only one-half of one percent of the famotidine
group. In the placebo group, seventeen
percent had these ulcers.
experts say people should not take aspirin for disease prevention without first
talking to a doctor.
are risks, and researchers have reported that some people get little or no
protection from aspirin. But research
continues to give new life to one of the oldest and most widely used drugs in
IN THE NEWS was written by George Grow and Jerilyn Watson. Our producer was Brianna Blake. I'm Bob Doughty.
I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next
week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.