An aspirin-a-day keeps fat away

Aspirin is one of the most widely used medications in the world. A staggering 40,000 tons of it are consumed each year.

It’s also one of the oldest known medicines. First reports of its use date back to an Egyptian papyrus in 1543 BC. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who lived sometime between 460 BC and 377 BC, left historical records describing the use of powder made from the bark and leaves of the willow tree to alleviate headaches, pains, and fevers. The active ingredient of this willow bark extract – salicylic acid.

In addition to its use as an anti-inflammatory pain reliever, aspirin is also used  as an anticoagulant / antiplatelet agent  to prevent strokes and heart attacks, and to stop coronary and carotid stents from blocking and to prevent deep vein thrombosis associated with long distance travel.

Aspirin has also been theorized to reduce cataract formation in diabetic patients and three studies published last month suggest that taking an aspirin every day may significantly reduce the risk of many cancers and prevent tumors from spreading.

Now, a group of researchers from Canada, Scotland and Australia have discovered that salicylate, the active ingredient in aspirin, directly increases the activity of the protein AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK).  AMPK is a key player in regulating cell growth and metabolism.  It is considered a cellular fuel-gauge which can be switched on by exercise and the commonly used oral anti-diabetic medication metformin.

We’re finding this old dog of aspirin already knows new tricks,” says McMaster University associate professor of medicine Dr. Greg Steinberg.  The research shows that, in contrast to exercise or metformin which increase AMPK activity by altering the cells energy balance, the effects of salicylate depend on a single amino acid.

Salicylate increases fat burning and reduces liver fat in obese mice which does not occur in genetically modified mice lacking the beta1 subunit of AMPK.

These findings are important as a large clinical trial is currently underway testing whether salsalate (a well-tolerated aspirin derivative), can prevent Type 2 diabetes.  With many recent studies showing that metformin may be important for cancer prevention the authors’ study raise the interesting possibility that aspirin may also be working in a similar manner.

While further studies are needed, the prospect that this cheap, over-the-counter drug can increase fat burning while simultaneously preventing pain, clotting problems and possibly cancer, is probably one of the best health news stories of the year.

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