The American Association for Cancer Research awarded Dr. Michele Carbone a $100,000 grant for his international collaboration in cancer prevention research. Carbone is the director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at the University of Hawaii, and visited Turkey about ten years ago to deliver a keynote speech at a medical conference. During his visit, Dr. Carbone discovered a set of mesothelioma cases with an interesting connection: they all came from a few families in several villages in Cappadocia. About fifty percent of the population of the villages died of mesothelioma – an astounding proportion of the total death rate. Upon investigation, Dr. Carbone discovered that the houses in the villages were all constructed from a soft volcanic rock containing erionite, a naturally-occurring fibrous mineral very similar to asbestos. Erionite exposure is thought to cause mesothelioma in the same way that asbestos does. However,
Dr. Carbone also discovered that the deaths were clustered – in one house, everyone died of mesothelioma, while in another house literally next door, no one got sick. In addition, when the residents of a house died, villagers would demolish their house – sending dust into the air where everyone would be exposed. Yet, there were numerous people who were being exposed to huge levels of dust and yet remaining healthy. After years of research, Carbone discovered that there was a genetic predisposition for mesothelioma – the asbestos or erionite would cause the disease, but individuals with a certain genetic complex were much more likely to develop symptoms and get sick. Carbone says this gene-environment interaction was triggered by exposure to the erionite, and urged the government to build new houses out of non-contaminated materials for residents, which was done. In addition, the Turkish government built a research hospital in the area for mesothelioma studies. Carbone says his research team is now close to isolating the specific gene responsible, which could greatly improve methods of early detection and even lead to a cure.