Medical Researchers Discover Asbestos Mechanism

In several articles here at, we have reported that doctors have made a solid, documented connection between amphibole asbestos fibers and cancers such as mesothelioma; however, the exact mechanism by how these fibers cause cells to become malignant has not been well understood… until now. A story in the April 10th issue of ScienceNOW reports the results of a medical study indicating that asbestos fibers activate certain proteins used by the body’s immune system, which causes chronic inflammation. According to the research team, which conducted the study at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, the prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers interacts with a body chemical called Nalp3. When this chemical is stimulated, it causes the release of another naturally-occurring chemical known as interleukin-1 β.This is what causes inflammation, which under normal circumstances and over short periods of time, helps the healing process. However, the presence of asbestos fibers in lung tissue appears to cause ongoing inflammation, which ultimately results in lung tissue scarring and the development of cancer cells. Although there are many details that have yet to be studied in this regard, the Swiss research team points out that interleukin-1 β have been implicated in other types of cancer.

Laboratory mice that were bred without the ability to produce Nalp3 in turn produced less interleukin-1 β –and therefore, suffered significantly less inflammation when exposed to asbestos. Now, the big question is–will this discovery lead to better treatments and perhaps even a cure? The answer is, quite possibly. Dr. Tschopp, who led the research team, said that his findings suggest that a drug used to treat inflammation resulting from rheumatoid arthritis, known as Anakinra, might be used to prevent asbestos-triggered damage in lung tissue. Of course, this would depend on early diagnosis. Such early diagnosis might be accomplished by testing the patient for elevated levels of interleukin-1 β , according to Dr. Joseph Testa of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Pennsylvania . On the other hand, David Kamp of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University believes such optimism is premature. The Swiss study was conducted on mice, which share significant physiological traits with humans. However, Kamp says that the study did not show that the process triggered cancer in the mice. He believes more study is necessary before a definite cancer link is established.