No Cures on the Horizon for Asbestos-Related Cancers, But Research Is Promising

Doctors say that new methods are providing them with new ways to diagnose and treat asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma, but there are no cures looming on the horizon.

According to Christopher Lee, MD, who is a mesothelioma expert in Canada, it would be overly optimistic to ever say that mesothelioma can be cured. ‘But we can always dream,’ he added.

Also, Paul Demers, a senior scientist in prevention at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto, stated recently that mesothelioma is very difficult to treat because the latency period is often decades long. In fact, it can take up to 40 years from asbestos exposure until diagnosis.

As asbestos fibers are breathed into the lungs, they are trapped in the lungs’ pleural lining. Over decades, these thousands of tiny fibers cause the tissue to become scarred. This can cause genetic mutations to occur, which can lead to cancer.

There are new medical devices such as the CyTOF instrument that let doctors to detect the cancer sooner and more precisely. This could allow there to be more effective asbestos cancer treatments developed.

The CyTOF machine provides patients with a less invasive treatment option than surgery. The machine is able to very precisely find the asbestos fibers that are lodged in the lungs. The machine even has the ability to analyze single cells. This ability may increase the chances of better treatments in the years to come.

However, other experts say that there have been incremental improvements in slowing the development of asbestos-related cancers, but there still have been no major breakthroughs yet.

That isn’t to say that there are not new treatments being developed. Stephen Lam, MD, an oncologist in British Columbia, is studying if cancer cells may be able to be controlled with immunotherapy and chemotherapy, rather than just the conventional treatment of chemotherapy.

That clinical study is being reviewed as of late 2016 and is in phase 2. This is the stage where Lee is looking to learn if immunotherapy has any effect against cancers such as mesothelioma. This study is being done in several cancer centers in Canada and Italy. It will be two more years before any results are known.

Another developing technique for treating asbestos cancer is Surgery for Mesothelioma After Radiation Treatment, or SMART. Doctors who have developed the technique claim that they have been able to double the survival period for people with mesothelioma. The technique is a variation of a standard cancer operation where parts of the lungs are taken out and radiation is used to kill cancer cells.

The SMART variation uses radiation before surgery is done, with the hope that there are no remaining cancer cells after surgery. This would effectively kill the cancer, in theory.

The problem with this surgery is that the asbestos fibers can be grown into the lung lining. That is, the cancer is not an individual tumor, it is actually growing as part of the lining, which thickens over the years. It actually grows around the surface of the chest, which is curved, and also grows around the lung and inside the wall of the chest. This makes it very difficult to determine where to make incisions during surgery.

It is hoped that the new mesothelioma treatment developments will result in better options for treatment for Canadian patients, who are growing in number. In 2013, Canada had 580 new mesothelioma cases, and 75 were in British Columbia. From 2006-15, there were 584 deaths in British Columbia that were related to exposure to asbestos.

However, there could be other cases of asbestos-related cancer that are not being properly reported. For every one case of mesothelioma, it is thought that there are four cases of lung cancer. Many doctors attribute lung cancer to smoking but it also can be caused by asbestos exposure.

Other researchers located in the United States also may have found a promising new treatment for mesothelioma. A recently completed clinical study in 2016 reported that a streptomyces bacteria antibiotic could be an effective treatment for some patients.

Research indicates that the streptomyces parvulus bacteria may be effective in fighting the growth of mesothelioma cells. Actually, several studies have shown that this type of antibiotic may be able to interfere with some of the cellular processes of the body. This antibiotic may also be effective in reducing oxidative stress and can be an effective treatment for atherosclerosis.

When mesothelioma cells are exposed to the antibiotic, they would begin to experience apoptosis. This simply means that one of the cells’ vital signaling protein is suppressed. This can cause some of the cancer cells to die, but some healthy cells also may die.

The initial trials of this antibiotic have been promising, but experts note that it will be a few years before the drug will be offered in any human based clinical trials. To this point, the treatment only has been tried on mice in a laboratory. If the research continues to look promising, it is believed that in the near future, humans with mesothelioma will be invited to participate in clinical trials.

There is a great deal of research being done to find the best ways to fight mesothelioma. This is a very deadly and cruel disease that is usually terminal. Most patients die within a year or two of being diagnosed. It is hoped that some of the new treatments and methods discussed above will allow the cancer to be diagnosed earlier and treated more effectively.

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