According to an estimate from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 11 million people in Illinois and throughout the country were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1978. Every year, approximately 3,000 people pass away from mesothelioma, half of whom only developed the disease within a year of their death.
For many years, scientists have worked to determine why only a relatively small fraction of the people who are exposed to asbestos fibers eventually develop mesothelioma. Now, it appears that they have come one step closer to solving that puzzle, with the discovery of a gene that, if mutated, may predispose people to mesothelioma.
In the NIH study, researchers looked at two families that had a high rate of mesothelioma and similar cancers. They found that every member of those families who developed the disease had a mutation of the BAP1 gene. Similarly, another two dozen mesothelioma patients who had no family history of cancer also had BAP1 mutations.
The BAP1 gene has the duty of repairing DNA damage and suppressing tumor growth and activity. Therefore, scientists were not surprised that many of the people with a BAP1 mutation had also developed other cancers such as breast, pancreatic and renal cancers.
Although some genetic mutations are inherited, the majority are caused by outside influences that mutate otherwise healthy cells. Therefore, it is likely that asbestos and similar materials are causing the BAP1 mutations that appear to be linked to mesothelioma and similar cancers.
Certainly, additional research is needed before scientists and doctors incorporate the mutation into mesothelioma prevention and treatment, but it is a promising development in the ongoing research into this deadly disease.
Source: The Daily News, “Genetic susceptibility to mesothelioma,” Norbert Herzog and David Niesel, May 22, 2012