Since the 1970s, scientists and researchers have endeavored to learn the process that causes exposure to asbestos to lead to mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that strikes the soft band of tissue around the lungs. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences and authored by a research team from the University of Hawaii may have unlocked the answer to this forty-year-old question.
Dr. Haining Yang and Dr. Michele Carbone at the University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center led the efforts to discover how asbestos fibers work their way into the cells and form tumors. The team also included researchers from around the globe, including New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, London and Milan. The researchers were presented with a paradox unique to asbestos contamination: if the asbestos kills healthy cells, and dead cells cannot form tumors, how does a cell affected by asbestos form mesothelioma?
The answer lies in the process behind cell deaths induced by asbestos. When a healthy cell encounters microscopic asbestos fibers, it undergoes a process called “programmed cell necrosis”. The process forces the cell to release a protein called “high mobility group box 1″, abbreviated “HMGB1″. The HMGB1 protein causes the healthy cell to change its genetic structure so that it mutates into a malignant cancer cell.
As the researchers conducted their tests, they found that the subjects exposed to asbestos had elevated levels of HMGB1 in their blood. The study concluded that future patients could undergo a blood test that specifically looks for markers of HMGB1 as a tool for early detection. In the future, scientists could develop treatments that would target HMGB1 and prevent the incidence or metastasis of mesothelioma throughout the body.
Dr. Yang and Dr. Carbone have already announced that they will carry out the next stage of their tests in an isolated region in eastern Turkey. The region is noted for its high incidence rates for malignant pleural mesothelioma. Government health reports have stated that more than half of the area’s population dies from mesothelioma.
The doctors will conduct HMGB1 blood tests on area residents to determine the levels of correlation between the presence of the blood protein and the incidence of the disease. If the tests prove successful in this high-incidence area, the doctors will consider approaches on clinical trials for US-based patients.
Since the process behind how HMGB1 causes malignant mesothelioma also includes inflammation, researchers will also test how anti-inflammatory medications can help in the treatment regimen. The theory is that anti-inflammatory remedies could act as a preventative measure to slow down or halt the HMGB1 process. Another part of the hypothesis suggests that medications such as aspirin could reduce the grown rate of mesothelioma tumors by interfering with the cycle that originally mutated the healthy cells.
Scientists will continue to conduct tests on these theories and establish their veracity. Although any effective form of diagnosis, treatment or potential cure is still many years away, the scientific community agrees that this theory represents a significant breakthrough in mesothelioma research.
Source: University of Hawaii