Although current medical and scientific wisdom is in agreement that most cases of the cancer mesothelioma can be linked to asbestos exposure, a recent article published in the Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology explores this link in depth.
Asbestos is made up of microscopic fibers, which can pass through the lungs’ natural filtration system. If those fibers are inhaled, they can become embedded in the mesothelium, which is a dual layer of tissue in the chest and abdominal cavities. As explained in the article, which is entitled “Pathogenesis of Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma and the Role of Environmental and Genetic Factors,” the fibers can damage the mitotic spindles of the mesothelial cells, leading to genetic changes to the DNA. The mitotic spindles control the division and replication of cells, and once they are affected, the cells can divide uncontrollably and without order, which then causes the formation of a malignant tumor.
This is the most direct genesis of mesothelioma, but another method involves the formation of something called reactive oxygen species, or ROS. Iron content within the asbestos fibers can produce the ROS, which also damage the DNA of mesothelial cells. It may also play a role in suppressing the immune system, thereby making the body more vulnerable to the cancer.
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent mesothelioma except by avoiding contact with asbestos. Once widely used in the construction, metalworking, chemical production, manufacturing and shipbuilding industries—to name but a few—asbestos use has been phased out and regulated in the United States, but not entirely banned. Mesothelioma can take decades to surface, so people who may have experienced asbestos exposure in the years following World War II may have the cancer, but not yet have been diagnosed.
There are approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and these numbers are expected to peak within the next decade. There is no cure for mesothelioma at the present time, and patients generally live only a few months after learning that they have the disease.