As if people who suffer from the painful pangs of heartburn and acid reflux didn’t have enough to contend with, an alarming new study suggests that the most common medications used to treat these conditions can significantly increase the risk of stomach cancer.
The drugs in question are proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are used to suppress acid production in the stomach. The new study, conducted by the University College London and the University of Hong Kong, suggests that taking these, the most widely sold drugs in the world, may double the risk of stomach cancer. As Science Alert reports, it seems that taking these drugs over the long haul can increase that risk by almost 250 percent.
It’s important to note that this study, as the UCL website notes, doesn’t apply to occasional or short term use. With a short view, PPIs have proved safe and effective in suppressing acid production in the stomach. But for people who carry a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, there is a heightened risk when taking the drugs for an extended time frame. Since about half of the world’s population has this bacteria naturally occurring inside their bodies, as the New York Daily News noted, it’s time to take stock of the risk of what happens when the drug and the bacteria are combined.
“Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are an important treatment of Helicobacter pylori infection and have good safety records for short-term use,” researcher Ian Wong from University College London told the Science Alert. “However, unnecessary long-term use should be avoided.”
Here are the details of the study: From an original group of 63,000 Hong Kong residents, 153 people developed stomach cancer. Those on PPIs were 2.44 times more likely to get cancer while those on alternative drugs, such as H2 blockers, had no increased risk. People taking PPIs on a daily basis showed an eight-fold greater risk of stomach cancer, according to the study. You can check out the full study here.
“Interestingly, the authors found no such correlation between gastric cancer risk and long-term treatment with other anti-suppressive drugs,” gastrointestinal infection researcher Richard Ferrero told Science Alert. “The work has important clinical implications as PPIs, which are among the top 10 selling generic drugs in the US, are commonly prescribed to treat heartburn.”
We should keep in mind that while this doubled risk is scary, medical experts say, it only manifests in a small number of people, roughly four in every 10,000 stomach cancer cases. And scientists aren’t entirely certain why the connection exists.