Epidemiological and clinical aspects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and cancer risks

J Environ Pathol Toxicol Oncol. 2002;21(2):193-201.


It is well known that about 70% of cancer cases are due to environmental, dietary, or lifestyle factors. Accordingly, these cases maybe avoided by appropriate modifications. In addition, active chemoprevention has become a major interventional approach following the epidemiological observation of a beneficial effect of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in colon cancer prevention. This is chiefly due to the inhibition of the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes. The COX enzymatic system includes two isoenzymes, COX-1 and COX-2, that convert arachidonic acid to prostaglandins. COX-1 is constitutively expressed and synthesizes cytoprotective prostaglandins in the gastrointestinal tract. COX-2 is inducible by the oncogenes ras and scr and other cytokines; it is overexpressed in human cancer cells in which it stimulates cellular division and angiogenesis and inhibits apoptosis. NSAIDs restore apoptosis and decrease tumor mitogenesis and angiogenesis. Most cancer cells have been found to exhibit overexpression of COX-2. Epidemiological studies showed a lower risk of developing cancer of the colon, breast, esophagus, and stomach following the ingestion of NSAIDs. The use of NSAIDs in low dose was associated with a statistically significant decrease in the risk of adenomatous polyps and of overt colon cancer. The regressive effects of sulindac on foci of aberrant crypts in the colon (considered to be precursors of adenoma), and on adenocarcinoma of the colon, are of particular interest because this NSAID does not have an inhibitory effect on COX. This may support the view that the antineoplastic effect of NSAIDs may also be due to a mechanism other than COX-2 inhibition. In breast cancer, large cohort studies reported a 40 to 50% reduced risk of developing cancer, a smaller size of the primary tumor, and a reduction in the number of involved axillary lymph nodes. Similar findings have been reported in the esophagus and stomach, but not in gastric cardia adenocarcinoma. The recent development of selective COX-2 inhibitors resulted in better clinical tolerance than that associated with NSAIDs in general, with the absence of gastrointestinal side effects known to occur after the inhibition of COX-1. Encouraging results have been obtained with these new agents in familial adenomatous polyposis, colon, breast, and prostate cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenomatous Polyposis Coli / prevention & control
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis
  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Cohort Studies
  • Colonic Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Cyclooxygenase 2
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 Inhibitors
  • Cyclooxygenase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isoenzymes / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Isoenzymes / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Neovascularization, Pathologic
  • Prostaglandin-Endoperoxide Synthases / pharmacology*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Risk Factors


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Cyclooxygenase 2 Inhibitors
  • Cyclooxygenase Inhibitors
  • Isoenzymes
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Cyclooxygenase 2
  • PTGS2 protein, human
  • Prostaglandin-Endoperoxide Synthases