What’s new in malignant mesothelioma research?
There is always research going on in the area of mesothelioma. Scientists are looking for ways to prevent, find, and treat the disease. Despite recent progress, there is still a lot to be learned about the best way to treat these cancers.
Causes and prevention
A lot of research has focused on learning exactly how asbestos changes normal cells and their DNA to cause cancer. Understanding how these fibers produce cancer might help us find ways to prevent those changes.
Now that we know about the dangers of asbestos, we can limit or stop its use in homes, public buildings, and the workplace. But rules to protect people from asbestos are much less strict (or they do not exist at all) in some other countries.
Research is also going on to learn about the role (if any) of a virus (SV40) that has been linked to mesothelioma in some studies.
Researchers are starting to learn how certain changes in DNA can cause normal cells to become mesothelioma cells. DNA is the substance in our cells that carries the “orders” for nearly everything they do.
Some genes (parts of our DNA) tell our cells when to grow and divide into new cells. These are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.
Researchers have found some of the important DNA changes in mesothelioma cells in recent years. More research in learning about these changes may lead to new tests to find mesothelioma earlier and new drugs for better treatment.
Mesothelioma remains hard to treat, and doctors are always trying to improve on current methods. Newer types of treatment now being studied may give patients and their doctors even more options.
Chemotherapy (chemo) drugs have not worked very well against advanced mesothelioma, but several newer chemo drugs are now being tested in clinical trials, together with other types of treatment.
Doctors are also looking at giving chemo drugs right into the chest or abdomen, often right after surgery. In some cases the drugs are heated before they are given. Doctors hope that putting the drugs directly into contact with the tumors may help them work better, while causing fewer side effects in the rest of the body.
Another technique now being studied is called photodynamic therapy (PDT). For this treatment, a drug that is “turned on” by light is put into a vein. The drug spreads throughout the body and tends to collect in cancer cells. A few days later (usually just after surgery), a special red light on the end of a tube is placed into the chest. The light causes a chemical change that turns on the drug and causes the cancer cells to die. This approach may cause fewer side effects than use of drugs that spread throughout all tissues of the body. Several clinical trials are now looking at the use of PDT for mesothelioma.
Chemo drugs often do not work very well against mesothelioma. As researchers have learned more about the changes inside cells that cause cancer, they have been able develop newer drugs that are aimed at (target) these changes. Targeted drugs work in a different way from standard chemo drugs. They often have different (and less severe) side effects.
One group of these drugs slows the growth of new blood vessels that feed the tumor. Tumors need these blood vessels to grow larger. Some of these drugs are already used to treat other types of cancer and are now being studied for use against mesotheliomas. Other new drugs have different targets.
Newer forms of treatment
Because standard treatments often don’t work very well against mesothelioma, researchers are looking at other new types of treatment as well.
A newer type of treatment being tested on mesothelioma is gene therapy, which attempts to add new genes to cancer cells to make them easier to kill. One approach to gene therapy uses special viruses that have been altered in the lab. The virus is injected into the chest and infects the mesothelioma cells, putting the altered gene into the cells. In one version of this approach, the virus carries a gene that helps turn on the immune system to attack the cancer cells. Early studies of this approach have found it may shrink or slow the growth of mesothelioma in some people, but more research is needed to confirm this.
Other new treatments called cancer vaccines are also aimed at getting the immune system to attack the cancer. In one approach, immune cells are removed from a patient’s blood and treated in the lab to get them to react to tumor cells. The immune cells are then given back to the patient as blood transfusions, where it is hoped they will cause the body’s immune system to attack the cancer. This approach is now being studied in clinical trials.
Last Medical Review: 10/02/2012
Last Revised: 10/02/2012