After nearly a century of mesothelioma research, doctors have learned what causes this cancer, who is most at risk for contracting the disease, what symptoms indicate its presence and what tools are most effective at diagnosing and treating the cancer. These strides have significantly impacted how medical professionals diagnose and treat mesothelioma. Current efforts are working to develop more effective treatments and an eventual cure for this life-threatening disease.
Pharmaceutical Breakthroughs for Mesothelioma
There are two FDA-approved one chemotherapy medications for the treatment of mesothelioma, Alimta and Cisplatin. Alimta, which works to stop cell division, is often administered along with the platinum-based chemotherapy agent Cisplatin in one of the most effective chemotherapy combinations available.
Onconase, one of the first stem cell medications to reach the final stages of clinical trials, is a low-toxicity chemotherapy drug that is designed to shrink and kill mesothelioma tumors. This medication has been admitted to the FDA’s Fast Track program, which expedites the approval time for certain drugs. This program often cuts the approval time to six months, allowing the medication in question to be quickly designated for widespread use when patients have few other FDA-approved options.
Veglin, which has demonstrated ability to stabilize and shrink tumors, reached Phase II clinical trial testing in 2004. The University of California’s Keck School of Medicine is currently examining its success in mesothelioma patients. Researchers hope to curb the rapid metastasis typical of mesothelioma with this medication.
The process of introducing a new mesothelioma medication typically takes between 12 and 15 years. To ensure patient safety, adequate time must be spent in each stage of the development process. The table below outlines the average process of testing and presenting a new pharmaceutical product.
|Stage of the Process||Step of Development|
|Years 1-3||Basic Research|
|Years 4-6||Pre-clinical testing using in vitro (artificially created environments) and animal trials|
|Years 7-10||Clinical testing via Phase I, II and III clinical trials|
|Year 10||Register the drug with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration|
|Year 11||Introduction of the drug to the public|
|Years 11-15||Product monitoring and Phase IV clinical trials|
Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy is a more precise form of delivering radiation to an affected area, in turn sparing the healthy tissues around the tumor. Now implemented in nationwide hospitals, the relatively new procedure is one of the most precise forms of externally-delivered radiation therapy.
Gene therapy, which uses laboratory-modified viruses that activate the immune system and kill cancerous cells, is still in the experimental phase. Although not yet widespread, clinical trials have yielded promising results. Clinical trials are also exploring the effectiveness of photodynamic therapy, which exposes sensitive cancerous cells to light that can kill them, and immunotherapy, a technique that manipulates the patient’s immune system into attacking the antigens in cancerous cells.
Biomarkers are also generating considerable interest in research projects. Identifying specific compounds in fluid or tissue samples can indicate the presence or absence of a certain disease. Fujirebio Diagnostics’ test is the first of its kind that can detect the biomarkers associated with mesothelioma with a simple blood screen, and its developers hope it will increase the rate of early diagnosis.
Mesothelioma Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are one of the major ways that researchers can gather information about a specific drug or procedure’s affect on mesothelioma patients. Since the illness is quite rare, any opportunity to observe a patient’s response to an emergent treatment can greatly assist medical researchers in understanding the impact of the therapy in question.
Because the purpose of clinical trials is to further explore treatments that have illustrated success and safety in a laboratory, participants have the opportunity to benefit from a drug or therapy routine that is not yet available through their doctor or oncologist. These trials are professionally monitored, and the nature of the treatment as well as its risks and benefits are explained to a patient before they give their informed consent to participate.
Clinical trials involve four phases, each focusing on a crucial aspect of product development.
|Phase I||Determines basic information such as drug dosage or methods of administration.|
|Phase II||Focuses on the treatment’s safety and interaction with the intended target.|
|Phase III||Compares the new method of treatment to current options. If it appears to significantly impact prognosis, FDA approval will be requested, which can take up to a year.|
|Phase IV||Begins after the drug has been approved for use and it becomes clinically accepted. This monitoring is used to measure its continued affects on a wider population.|
Mesothelioma Research and Funding
Advocacy groups have brought mesothelioma out of relative obscurity and have even secured federal funding for eligible studies. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense allocated $50 million for mesothelioma research, and the funds are being distributed in increments of up to $2.5 million.
The Meso Foundation's Science Advisory Board reviews dozens of international research proposals each year and awards grants of up to $50,000 per project per year. A number of smaller grants, private donations and proceeds from independent fundraisers have been awarded to other research organizations.
In addition, a number of cancer treatment centers are opening up to doing more research about mesothelioma and its treatment. One of the most recent success stories that brings a lot of hope with it is the Health Sciences Tissue Bank at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).
University of Pittsburgh Tissue Bank
The Health Sciences Tissue Bank supports other research efforts at UPMC, but it also offers the hope of more sharing of hard-to-find information about asbestos diseases.. Tissue banks collect samples of cancerous tissues and other diseases so that researchers can study them and improve treatments. If a mesothelioma patient doesn't have the energy to start their own fundraising campaign, one way for them to volunteer and support mesothelioma research is by electing to donate their tissue. Within the Lung Cancer Program at UPMC, the Mesothelioma Specialty Care Center has several well-known mesothelioma experts, including Dr. David L. Bartlett, Dr. James F. Pingpank and Dr. Matthew Schuchert.
Applying Research: Education and Empowerment
Since 2004, the Annual Asbestos Awareness Conference has been sharing the recent research with medical professionals, patients and their families. The Meso Foundation sponsors a yearly International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma, and the International Mesothelioma Interest Group has hosted a yearly mesothelioma conference since 2000. These events, along with smaller local presentations hosted by hospitals or physicians, are typically open to the public and provide attendees with breaking information on mesothelioma treatment, diagnosis and screening research.
The Mesothelioma Center empowers mesothelioma patients and their families with a monthly telephone support group meeting. Licensed mental health counselor Dana Nolan leads a group discussion for patients, caregivers and relatives on the fourth Wednesday of every month. Participants learn tips and techniques for dealing with this unique disease.
How Can You Raise Awareness for Research?
September 26 each year is designated Mesothelioma Awareness Day. Those who support mesothelioma and asbestos awareness often travel to New York and join a "Today Show" audience with signs and shirts to raise the profile of this disease.
In 2011, supporters received more than two minutes of visual recognition and one volunteer had 15 seconds of airtime with Al Roker to explain their cause. In the small world of mesothelioma, it was a banner moment.
Miles for Meso is a 5K race that raises awareness and money for mesothelioma. People who enter the race can run or walk, and the money earned is reserved for mesothelioma research. Miles for Meso began in Alton, Illinois, in 2009 and has spread to other cities around the country. Starting a Miles for Meso event near you is an easy way to promote research for and knowledge of mesothelioma.
In South Florida, Larry Davis helped organize an annual Miles for Meso event and has since been recognized with the Mesothelioma Volunteer of the Year Award. Davis, a 6-year survivor who credited his lifespan to running, walking and swimming, spent much of his time raising funds for mesothelioma research and encourages elected officials to ban the use of asbestos. Davis passed away in 2012, but not before crafting a legacy of hope that more awareness and more research into mesothelioma will prevent this disease from taking more lives.