For the first time, researchers are examining how asbestos particles bond to human cells to lead to cancer. This study could lead to drugs to more effectively treat asbestos-related diseases such as the nearly always fatal mesothelioma. The Ohio State University researchers used atomic force microscopy in order to look at the manner in which a single bit of asbestos adheres to one receptor on the surface of a human cell. Eric Taylor, a coauthor of the study, explains atomic force microscopy as “Braille on a molecular level.” He likens it to a means to allow the scientists to “feel” the surface of the cells and where the receptors are. The study authors speculate that for the most toxic forms of asbestos, such an attachment could set the gears into motion to lead to several types of disease decades after exposure. These include a scarring of the lung tissue known as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma — a cancer of the pleural lining of the body’s tissues, especially the lungs. There are six types of asbestos that occur naturally in soil and the bedrock.
Due to the properties of the mineral, it had been used for insulation, fireproofing, and in many other aspects of construction materials up until the 1980s. After that time, the dangers of exposure to asbestos were revealed and its use in new constructions was banned in many nations, and regulations surrounding the treatment of pre-existing asbestos tightened. However, most buildings in the Western Hemisphere built before the 1980s still have asbestos in some part of their infrastructure. Due to these factors, complete avoidance of asbestos in the workplace is difficult. According to the United States Department of Labor, about 1.3 million workers will face exposure to asbestos while on the job. Of the six forms of asbestos, crocidolite has been the focus of the Ohio State study, but they hope to examine the other five types in the near future since each form acts differently once it enters the body. The information from a comparison of the six asbestos forms can assist lawmakers in determining which form of asbestos to most strictly regulate. Ideally, the scientists of the study hope that their work can result in effective means to prevent the development of asbestos-related diseases before they manifest.