Reducing Aspirin’s Negative Effects: New Study Offers a Simple Solution

Man Pouring Drugs into Hand Medicine Aspirin

Aspirin is a commonly used over-the-counter medication that is used to reduce pain, inflammation, and fever. It is also known as acetylsalicylic acid and belongs to a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Aspirin works by blocking the production of certain chemicals in the body that contribute to inflammation, pain, and fever.

According to a new study published in The Lancet, a short course of antibiotics may help to reduce the risk of stomach bleeding associated with long-term use of aspirin.

The .HEAT (Helicobacter pylori Eradication Aspirin) trial, was led by Professor Chris Hawkey from the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine and Nottingham Digestive Diseases Centre, and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research Health Technology Assessment program. The findings may improve the safety of aspirin when used to prevent heart attacks, strokes, and possibly some cancers.

Aspirin in low doses is a very useful preventative drug in people at high risk of strokes or heart attacks. However, on rare occasions, it can provoke internal ulcer bleeding. By thinning the blood, aspirin makes ulcers in the stomach bleed. These ulcers may be caused by a particular type of bacteria, helicobacter pylori.

The STAR (Simple Trials for Academic Research) team from the University of Nottingham investigated whether a short course of antibiotics to remove these bacteria would reduce the risk of bleeding in aspirin users.

The .HEAT Trial was a very large trial conducted in 1,208 UK general practices. It was a real-life study that used clinical data routinely stored in GP and hospital records, instead of bringing patients back for follow-up trial visits.

The team wrote to 188,875 patients who were taking aspirin and 30,166 volunteered and took part in the study. Those who tested positive for H. pylori were randomized to receive antibiotics or placebos (dummy tablets) and were followed for up to 7 years.

Over the first two and a half years, those who had antibiotic treatment were less likely to be admitted to the hospital because of ulcer bleeding than those who had dummy tablets (6 versus 17). Protection occurred rapidly: with those who received placebos (a dummy treatment), the first hospitalization for ulcer bleeding occurred after 6 days, compared to 525 days following antibiotic treatment.

Over a longer time period, protection appeared to wane. However, the overall rate of hospitalization for ulcer bleeding was lower than expected and this is in line with other evidence that ulcer disease is on the decline. Risks for people already on aspirin are low. Risks are higher when people first start aspirin, when searching for H. pylori and treating it is probably worthwhile.

Professor Chris Hawkey said: “Aspirin has many benefits in terms of reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people at increased risk. There is also evidence that it is able to slow down certain cancers. The .HEAT trial is the largest UK-based study of its kind, and we are pleased that the findings have shown that ulcer bleeding can be significantly reduced following a one-week course of antibiotics. The long-term implications of the results are encouraging in terms of safe prescribing.”

Reference: “Helicobacter pylori eradication for primary prevention of peptic ulcer bleeding in older patients prescribed aspirin in primary care (HEAT): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial” by Professor Chris Hawkey, FMedSci, Professor Anthony Avery, MD, Professor Carol A C Coupland, Ph.D., Colin Crooks, Ph.D., Jennifer Dumbleton, BSc, Professor F D Richard Hobbs, FMedSci, Professor Denise Kendrick, Ph.D., Professor Michael Moore, FRCGP, Clive Morris, BSc, Professor Gregory Rubin, FRCGP, Murray Smith, Ph.D., Diane Stevenson, BSc, on behalf of theHEAT Trialists, 5 November 2022, The Lancet.
DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(22)01843-8

The results of the trial were presented at the UEG (United European Gastroenterology) scientific meeting in Vienna where it won a 10,000 Euro top abstract prize. The STAR team intends to use the prize to sponsor a competition to support a collaboration with a research team that would like to take advantage of STAR methodology.

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