Two Boston Hospitals Are Studying Aspirin’s Effects on Breast Cancer

Brigham and Women's and Dana-Farber received $10 million for the first-ever randomized trial focused on aspirin and breast cancer.

Last year, Boston doctors Michelle Holmes and Wendy Chen published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that aspirin—something many of us already have in our medicine cabinets—could be a successful treatment for breast cancer. Now, they’re getting the chance to test their theory.

Holmes and Chen’s resident hospitals—Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Dana-Farber Cancer Insitute (DFCI), respectively—received a $10 million Breakthrough Award from the Department of Defense’s Office of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program to conduct the first-ever randomized trial looking at aspirin’s effect on breast cancer. The study, called the Aspirin for Breast Cancer Trial (ABC), will examine 3,000 women with breast cancer, half of whom will take aspirin and half of whom will be given a placebo pill, to see if the painkiller really can make an impact on cancer treatment.

Though this is the first full-scale randomized trial examining aspirin and breast cancer, prior observational research has shown that women who regularly took aspirin while fighting their disease were half as likely to have fatal or recurring cancer than those who did not. In the New York Times piece, Holmes and Chen wrote that those effects could be related to aspirin’s anti-inflammatory properties, or its ability to curtail estrogen production. In a statement, Chen said that, if the study proves that aspirin is effective, it could have huge implications on breast cancer treatment, given its accessibility and low cost:

“Although chemo- and hormonal therapies have helped women with breast cancer live longer, they are expensive and have many side effects. Women whose tumors are not sensitive to hormones have limited treatment options. The results of this trial, if positive, could have a huge impact on the disease, as we have estimated that that aspirin may save 10,000 lives a year in the U.S. and 75,000 lives in low-income countries.”

While the ABC is exciting in its own right, it’s especially notable given that Holmes and Chen have struggled to get funding for their aspirin research in the past, as they wrote in the New York Times piece, since pharmaceutical companies have little to gain from studying a generic, over-the-counter drug. The Breakthrough Award, which gives aid to studies that do not fit traditional funding models, will finally make their research possible—which Holmes says in the statement is a huge step forward:

“The epidemiological and preclinical evidence linking aspirin with a positive effect on breast cancer recurrence is very strong, but we need a prospective trial like this one to definitively determine the role of aspirin in the disease.”