In 2010, Michelle Holmes and Wendy Chen, physicians and faculty members at Harvard Medical School, published an observational study in The Journal of Clinical Oncology that showed that women with breast cancer who took aspirin at least once every week were 50% less likely to die of breast cancer.
In 2012, British researchers found that aspirin is not only effective in preventing heart disease, but was associated with a significantly lower risk of breast cancer death.
Yet, there have been no follow up randomized trials to determine the accuracy of these claims until now. Pharmaceutical labs usually perform these clinical trials on drugs where there is a possibility of huge profits. Aspirin clearly does not offer that possibility. One can buy a bottle of aspirin over the counter for a couple of dollars.
The first randomized clinical trial is now being conducted in Britain with funding made available by a nonprofit group, Cancer Research UK. Why is there no research being conducted in the U.S.?
Growing up in the U.S. with a capitalist economic agenda, I was told from an early age on that technical and scientific advances were made possible by providing the incentive of personal financial gain and without that motivation people would not invest their time and energy to finding new discoveries and inventions. Even if that were true, is that what we should strive for?
My wife was diagnosed early on with multiple sclerosis, a potential deadly disease. It was then my eyes were opened to the true nature of research. Very little money was made available for MS research because not that many people had that disease and the pharmaceutical companies did not stand to make a lot of money if they developed a cure or a treatment. Whereas, the amount of money available for research in treatment for cancer and heart disease is almost limitless.
With aspirin, we have a potential treatment for breast cancer that may keep thousands of women alive. Yet, 5 years after this disclosure, no one in the U.S. has pursued this through clinical trials. If aspirin were found to be an effective deterrent to dying from breast cancer, it would be a treatment of choice available to poor women in this country, as well as globally, but would undercut the bottom line of the drug companies. We also have to consider that if aspirin is helpful to patients dealing with heart disease and it is found to be an inexpensive treatment for breast cancer, what other values might they find in this inexpensive drug.
At a young age, I accepted the rationale that personal financial reward was the driving factor around advances in technology and medicine. But, as I grew older and pursued my own career as a teacher and mental health professional, I began to question that notion. I was not in a field with high financial rewards. In fact, we struggled financially for many years and often I worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. But I helped emotionally troubled adolescents make the transition into adulthood without being imprisoned or killed. This was my reward and most of the teachers I have met had similar feelings. Would we have wanted higher wages? Of course, but there’s no way I would have been happy on Wall Street.
Is financial gain the only and most important motivation to seeking truth and knowledge? Well, for some people that’s true. That’s probably why people become hedge fund salesmen and bankers. When you are raised in a society where greed and selfishness are respected, rewarded and thought to be the normal state of mankind, your perception is skewed to seek those rewards. But, it is not the natural state of human behavior or values.
Dave Alpert has masters degrees in social work, educational administration, and psychology. He spent his career working with troubled inner city adolescents.