Common painkillers could decrease skin cancer risk

Recent research suggests that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may help prevent certain skin cancers. Nicolas Lannuzel/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Common over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can decrease risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma, according to a study published today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common types of skin cancer.

The results mean these drugs may have potential as skin cancer preventative agents, especially for high-risk people, said study co-author Catherine Olsen.

Olsen and her team, from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Queensland, did a meta-analysis of nine studies on the use of painkillers known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and the incidence of squamous cell carcinoma.

She said her team “synthesised all the published literature and found a reduced risk associated with NSAID use in total (18%) and also non-aspirin NSAIDs (15%)”. NSAIDs had the biggest impact on people who had previously had skin cancer, or people with solar keratoses, which are growths with the potential to become cancerous.

“We would like to think it may be another way to reduce your risk of developing these cancers,” Dr Olsen said. “Of course, the best way is to reduce your sun exposure – that will always be the number one preventative action for skin cancers – but this might be a supplementary skin cancer control measure.”

Clinical senior lecturer in dermatology at Australian National University, Andrew Miller, urged caution about the results.

“Aspirin is a cheap drug, and if you can use a cheap drug to deal with an expensive problem, then it’s worthwhile taking on,” he said. “But they [NSAIDS] are not benign drugs so you certainly can’t make a treatment recommendation at this stage.”

Olsen said people shouldn’t rush out and start popping anti-inflammatory drugs in the lead up to their next trip to the beach.

“There are significant side effects associated with these drugs, so anyone who wants to know more should speak to their health professional,” she said.

The meta-analysis was unable to pinpoint the ideal dosage or duration of use for NSAIDs as each of the studies included had different criteria for eligibility and measurement.

Olsen and her team are planning a study of nearly 44,000 Queenslanders to monitor their NSAID use and incidence of squamous cell carcinoma. This will help provide more information on the dose and duration of use required to have a cancer preventative effect.

Two out of three Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70 years old, and cheap and effective preventative drugs would have a major impact on national well-being.