The asbestos cancer
Asbestos is associated with more than 80% of cases of mesothelioma – a rare cancer that develops on the thin layer of tissue that covers internal organs. In collaboration with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance we explore this rare form of the disease and how research into this cancer is vital for improving treatments.
Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that most commonly affects the lining of the lungs. It’s estimated that more than 80% of all cases are caused by long term exposure to asbestos, a mineral fibre that was used in everything from household items to automotive parts and construction materials. When these microscopic fibres become airborne and enter the body, most commonly by inhalation, they can become lodged in the linings of the lungs, heart or abdominal cavity. Over time, the fibres cause irritation that can lead to scarring and can contribute to the onset of cancer.
Mesothelioma caused by asbestos can take between 10 and 50 years to emerge. This long latency period coupled with the lack of noticeable symptoms means many patients are diagnosed late, when it is much harder to treat. As a rare cancer with a poor prognosis, patients are often faced with limited options and aggressive treatments.
The current standard of treatment for mesothelioma usually involves a mix of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Due to the aggressive nature of this cancer and low rates of incidence, this standard of care has not progressed or improved much in the past decade. But where research is being conducted there is hope for better, more effective treatments. For example, the recently approved lung cancer immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab, has also shown some promise in early clinical trials involving mesothelioma patients. Surgical options are also improving as more research is conducted into the benefits of using less invasive and more targeted removal of tumours.
It’s also great to know that fundamental research is being conducted into mesothelioma. The more we can find out about the biology of this cancer, the better equipped we will be to diagnose and treat patients. Worldwide Cancer Research funds research into any cancer and judges projects based on the strength of the science, meaning that projects on rare cancers such as mesothelioma have an equal chance of getting funded. For example, Dr Peter Katsikis in the Netherlands, is using funds from Worldwide Cancer Research to work on the development of new immunotherapy options for mesothelioma.
Research supported by the charity has also revealed a potential new drug target for mesothelioma. Professor Stephano Biffo in Italy discovered that mesothelioma cells contain high levels of a specific protein that could make it a target for treatment. They found that a drug called enzastaurin was able to deactivate the protein in mesothelioma cancer cells and slow down their growth – showing early promise that there may be more targeted ways to treat this type of cancer.
While all cancers will benefit from current research, those with rare cancers like mesothelioma stand to benefit to a greater extent from all the much-needed improvements in care and advanced options for treatment. Rare cancers are far behind when it comes to what we know about the underlying biology. This means we don’t have the meaningful knowledge to turn the research into new treatments and tests like those seen for the more common cancers. By continuing to invest in research projects into cancers such as mesothelioma, organisations such as Worldwide Cancer Research are providing hope for patients afflicted with rare cancers.
Image credit: Ktborbeck - Wikimedia