Aspirational medicine

Chipping Norton has been a bit slow to play its wonder-drug card. But now, surely, being in the constituency of the Prime Minister who dismantled the National Health Service (and being home to Jeremy Clarkson and Rebekah Brooks), it needs to act to save its image. Luckily, the “sour gas” leak from the Elgin rig in the North Sea has provided the perfect opportunity for Chipping Norton’s PR people to vaunt the town’s status as the source of
a miracle health supplement.

Sour gas is a combination of methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, but it’s hydrogen sulphide that is the big problem. It has the pungent rotten-egg smell you may remember from your school chemistry classes and is hideously toxic to marine life. Yet good PR can spin that: a plentiful supply of hydrogen sulphide might be just what we need in the dying days of the NHS.

This is where Chipping Norton comes in. In 1763 the town’s curate gave powdered willow bark to 50 parishioners, thereby curing them of their “agues
and intermitting disorders”. His report to the Royal Society is regarded as the first scientific study of the power of aspirin.

Aspirin, a component of willow bark, inhibits the action of enzymes associated with pain and inflammation. That is why it seems to help with arthritis. But aspirin also reduces the stickiness of blood platelets, the fragments of cells that ride around in the bloodstream. When platelets stick together, they create blood clots that can trigger heart attacks and strokes; aspirin reduces the chance of this happening. A low dose of aspirin can cut the risk of stroke and heart attack by a third, reducing deaths by a quarter.

Now, it turns out, Chipping Norton’s home-grown remedy has the power to prevent and control cancer. Taking a low dose of aspirin for three years can cut cancer cases by roughly a quarter. Three years on aspirin cuts deaths among cancer patients by 15 per cent. After five years, deaths
are down 37 per cent. It’s thought that the improvement happens because cancerous cells can’t ride as easily through the body on platelets that are less sticky.

You’re probably wondering why you aren’t already being told to take aspirin every day. There are a couple of reasons for this. For a start, 20 years of ingesting aspirin would only stave off fatal cancers for about six months – hardly a miracle cure. What’s more, there is no free lunch: making blood platelets less sticky increases the risk of dangerous gastric bleeds. This is the core reason why experts still hesitate to recommend that everyone take a daily dose of aspirin, and why you should certainly talk to your doctor before doing so.

However, loading an aspirin pill with two gases – nitric oxide and hydrogen sulphide – hugely reduces the dangerous effects. Research published in January suggests that this combination can be 100,000 times more potent as an anti-cancer drug than aspirin alone, yet it causes minimal damage to the gut.

Have a gas

So here’s where Cameron’s background in PR could come in handy. It would work for Total, operator of the leaking well; for Chipping Norton, the source of our new miracle life-extension drug; and, most importantly, for the government.

Yes, hydrogen sulphide is problematic in certain situations, such as an undersea leak, but it can also take away the trouble with aspirin, freeing it to revolutionise health care. So, how about “Total liberates life-saving gas”? Or “We’re running the gas well that can make you well”? Or, surely the front-runner: “With an under-regulated petrochemical industry and Chipping Norton’s miracle drug, who needs a national health service?”

Michael Brooks’s “Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue