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Arthritis Drug Protects Against Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer

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A widely used arthritis drug reduces the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancers according to a study published this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib, approved for the treatment of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and acute pain in adults, led to a 62 percent reduction in non-melanoma skin cancers, which includes basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.

Celecoxib, a prescription-strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, reduced basal cell carcinomas by 68 percent and squamous cell carcinomas by 58 percent in patients at high risk for skin cancer. The decrease in the incidence of these cancers is much greater than that achieved through the use of sunscreen, which provides only moderate protection against squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas.

Pfizer manufactures and markets celecoxib under the brand name Celebrex. The study was jointly funded by Pfizer and the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

The study was a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with 240 patients between 37 and 87 years of age at multiple test sites. Participants were considered at high risk for the development of non-melanoma skin cancers and had between 10 and 40 actinic keratoses: rough, scaly patches about the size of the smallest fingernail that are usually found on sun-exposed areas like the arms, backs of the hands, nose and back of the neck. These patches often occur from too much time in the sun and can progress to skin cancer.

Half of the study participants received a 200 mg capsule of celecoxib twice daily and the other half were given placebo. Patients were evaluated at three, six and nine months, at which point treatment was completed, and again at 11 months, for the presence of new actinic keratoses, basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas. Patients receiving celecoxib saw marked reductions in both cancers.

COX-2 inhibitors such as celecoxib are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal side effects. In this trial researchers found no significant difference in the incidence of gastrointestinal disease, such as gastrointestinal hemorrhage or ulceration, in the two groups, nor did they observe a significant increase in cardiovascular adverse events, such as chest pain or heart attack, in patients who took celecoxib.

The American Cancer Society says most of the more than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed yearly in the United States are considered to be sun-related. Overall, cancer caused by sun light accounts for about half the cancer cases diagnosed in the United States.

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