Scientists have known that asbestos can cause mesothelioma and other diseases for decades. However, it was less clear how asbestos fibers could spur tumor growth.
In recent years, researchers have unraveled some of the mysteries of mesothelioma tumor formation. There’s still much to learn, but we now have a better picture of how mesothelioma begins. In turn, this deeper understanding may someday lead to the development of better treatments.
It starts with asbestos exposure
Asbestos is not a single mineral. Rather, it is a term used to label six related fibers. These fibers are all long, thin and highly durable. Miners carved them out of the earth and manufacturers used them because they helped make products stronger and more heat- and fire-resistant.
The CDC notes that the problems with asbestos begin when the fibers get into the air. Then, people can inhale them, and the fibers take root in their bodies, often near their lungs.
Cracking the code
Scientists have known some things about the connections between asbestos and mesothelioma for many years. These include several notable facts:
- The disease features a long latency period, and it often takes several decades after someone suffers asbestos exposure for that person to develop the disease
- Your chances of developing mesothelioma increase with the amount and duration of your asbestos exposure
- There is no amount of asbestos exposure known to be safe
- People who suffer asbestos exposure do not all develop mesothelioma
It has not always been clear why there is such a long latency period. Nor has it been clear what asbestos fibers did during that period that prompted tumors to grow.
That has started to change. Scientists have recently gained a greater understanding of the biological processes that cause the disease. And, as you might expect, these start with the asbestos fibers lodged in the body.
A vicious cycle of cell death and tumor growth
A trio of scientists published an article in 2020 that covers most of what we now know about mesothelioma tumor formation:
- Because they are too long for macrophages to envelop and remove, asbestos fibers remain in your body
- These “frustrated” macrophages trigger the release of free radicals
- Free radicals contain an unstable number of electrons and, therefore, can prompt chemical reactions that damage DNA
- As the mesothelial cells surrounding asbestos fibers die, they release a protein called high mobility group box 1 (HMGB1)
- HMGB1 signals the body to recruit more macrophages
- The macrophages arrive and sustain a chronic inflammation
- Over time, the macrophages prompt the release of more free radicals, which mutates the DNA of the mesothelial cells
- When the mutated mesothelial cells begin multiplying out of control, they become tumors
Better knowledge can lead to better treatments
Scientists can find more ways to fight a disease when they learn the pathways that lead to a disease. They can look at the different proteins and processes involved and look for ways to “fix” the unhealthy parts.
For example, scientists have already responded to the fact that inflammation plays a key role in the development of mesothelioma. They have found that aspirin can help reduce inflammation and, therefore, the risk of mesothelioma. Similarly, they have tested the ability of ethyl pyruvate to counter chronic inflammation.
Hope for the future
Scientists still have much to learn. But the more they understand the molecules and processes involved in tumor formation, the better they can find solutions. The good news for those who suffered asbestos exposure is that this research is ongoing. Researchers are still trying every day to tackle the mysteries of mesothelioma.