Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that can affect the lining of the lungs, abdomen, testes, or heart. There is no known cure for mesothelioma cancer but doctors and researchers have made significant progress in mesothelioma research in the last decade.
Each year in the United States, an average of 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma and because it can be difficult to diagnose and treat, many diagnoses do not occur until advanced stages of the disease leaving patients with fewer treatment options and a poor prognosis.
While researchers are still searching for a cure for mesothelioma, great progress has been made as scientists explore the causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malignant mesothelioma.
Cause and Prevention Research
Asbestos exposure is the primary, and only known cause of mesothelioma cancer. When asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested the tiny fibers can become lodged in the mesothelial tissue causing damage that can eventually lead to the development of mesothelioma. This development can take 10 to 60 years after exposure to asbestos before the symptoms of mesothelioma present themselves. Research is being done to determine exactly how these asbestos fibers cause the genetic mutations within a cell that cause it to grow and multiply so that preventions and treatments can be developed.
Other research into the cause and prevention of mesothelioma aims to identify other environmental factors that may increase an individual’s risk of developing mesothelioma after asbestos exposure. This research looks to clarify what roles smoking, radiation exposure, and the SV40 virus may have on the development of mesothelioma.
Early detection is critical to mesothelioma victims as the earlier the stage at which mesothelioma is detected, the more treatable options are available. Because of the importance of early diagnosis in mesothelioma prognosis, many current mesothelioma research studies are focused on the diagnosis of the cancer.
Many of these studies are looking in to the identification of biomarkers, molecules that can indicate the presence of mesothelioma. Notable progress was made with the development of MESOMARK, a blood test developed by Fujirebio Diagnostics to measure the presence of mesothelin, a biomarker produced by mesothelioma cells, in a patient’s blood.
While there is still no cure for mesothelioma, treatment options are available for mesothelioma patients. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation continue to be researched for the most effective methods and combinations for fighting mesothelioma. Multimodal Therapies, various combinations of these treatments, are being widely studied and have seen promising results for many patients.
Chemotherapy and drug research is a primary focus for researchers as these are usually the first course of treatment for mesothelioma. The only FDA approved treatment specifically for malignant mesothelioma is the new drug Alimta®. Alimta®, often given in combination with a second form of chemotherapy, such as cisplatin or carboplatin, slows cell division by blocking the specific DNA making processes that cells require to divide and reproduce and has seen promising results.
The orphan drug Onconase is another promising chemotherapy drug currently being studied by the mesothelioma community. This drug, which works much like other chemotherapy treatments by targeting dividing cells, is designed with the benefit of requiring a lower dosage at lower toxicity levels which means fewer side effects such as nausea and hair loss for patients.
Other chemotherapy research is being done to explore the effectiveness of giving patients chemotherapy treatment directly in the chest or abdomen during surgery. These treatments are designed to reach as much of the cancerous tissue at the site of the tumor while preserving healthy tissues and limiting negative side effects.
Radiation is often a palliative treatment included in mesothelioma treatment plans. Radiation is applied to cancerous tumors to damage DNA and kill off cancerous cells. Research in this area is being done to find applications of radiation that can limit the number of healthy cells that are damaged during radiation as it kills the cancerous cells. Studies on Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy hope to achieve this goal by more precisely targeting tumors.
Gene therapy is a newer form of mesothelioma treatment that is currently being studied. Gene therapy uses laboratory-modified viruses introduced into the immune system to essentially “train” a patient’s immune system to attack cancerous cells. This treatment, while still experimental, holds hope for future treatment options.
As mesothelioma research is completed in the lab, cancer centers must then conduct clinical studies and trials to test the safety and effectiveness of new treatments before it can be approved and recommended for regular use.
There are four different types of mesothelioma clinical trials that are designed for different research purposes:
- Treatment trials test new uses for treatments as well as new surgical procedures, drugs and vaccines.
- Prevention trials study healthy individuals who are considered to be high risk for developing cancer for ways to reduce their risk.
- Screening trials test methods of early detection for new or easier methods.
- Quality of Life Trials study ways to improve the quality of life for cancer patients. These palliative treatments are designed to help patients find relief from the symptoms of their cancer and treatments.
These different types of clinical trials then take several steps to test new mesothelioma treatments. As a new treatment successfully completes one phase it can then proceeds on to the next phase.
- Phase One: Phase one studies focus on finding a safe dosage, form of administration and side effects.
- Phase Two: Second phase studies how effectively a treatment works on a certain cancer in various patients as well as any other affects the treatment may have on the patient.
- Phase Three: Phase three of a clinical trial compares the new treatment method to current standard treatments in a large test group.
- Phase Four: Phase four occurs after enough testing has been completed to confirm that a treatment improves prognosis and receive FDA approval. Post FDA approval phase four includes ongoing testing to measure safety and effectiveness.
Clinical trials can give mesothelioma patients the opportunity to access the latest mesothelioma treatments available while helping doctors to better understand mesothelioma and treat patients in the future.
If you are interested in participating in one of these tests, you should discuss your options with your doctor. Not everyone is eligible to participate and The National Institute of Health provides a complete list of the ongoing trials. If you wish to learn more about the trials that may be available to you, CLICK HERE to contact a mesothelioma specialist to learn more.
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