Celecoxib, a widely used prescription-strength arthritis drug, reduced the occurrence of basal and squamous cell carcinomas among patients at high risk for skin cancer by more than half, study findings indicate.

Alice Pentland, MD, of the University of Rochester and researchers from several other U.S. sites, conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving 240 patients aged 37 to 87 years. All patients had between 10 and 40 actinic keratosis – rough, scaly patches of skin commonly found on sun-exposed areas that are prone to skin cancer progression.

Patients who were assigned to 200 mg of celecoxib (Celebrex, Pfizer) twice daily for nine months experienced a 68% reduction in basal cell carcinomas and a 58% reduction in squamous cell carcinomas at 11-month follow up.

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“For individuals who are at very high risk of skin cancer, this may be a method to reduce the number of new tumors they develop, despite the drug’s known side effects,” Pentland said in a press release.

Adverse effects associated with celecoxib, a COX-2 inhibitor, include cardiovascular and gastrointestinal events. The researchers did not observe significant differences in adverse event incidence among the two study groups; however, they noted that common side effects typically do not occur until patients have taken the medication for at least a year.

“Because the regular application of sunscreen provides only moderate protection against squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas, there has been a determined effort to identify alternative ways to prevent sunlight induced skin cancers,” the researchers wrote.

They project that in the future COX-2 inhibitors may be used in conjunction with other preventive measures to decrease the incidence of skin cancer. In the meantime, the researchers emphasized that people should continue to use sunscreen and other protective measures – such as wearing protective clothing and avoiding outdoor activities at peak hours of sun exposure.

 The full study results were published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.