The Mesothelioma Center’s Wish List for 2014

Holding Hands

You don’t always get what you wish for, but that won’t stop us from trying to move closer to finding a cure for mesothelioma cancer in 2014 and putting an end to all the heartache and heartbreak caused by this terrible disease.

It never hurts to make a wish or two, or three, four or five wishes. How wonderful it would be if all the toxic asbestos in the world suddenly disappeared, and mesothelioma became a thing of the past – but neither is expected to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, Asbestos.com will continue raising awareness, working for patients and families, and providing the support and the resources they need.

Let’s start with our Top Five Wish List for 2014:

1. Legislation Banning All Asbestos Products

Wouldn’t it be great to have a world without asbestos? More than 50 countries already banned all asbestos products – the only known cause of mesothelioma cancer – although the U.S. surprisingly is not one of those. It is still beholden to the big business lobby that has prevented the necessary legislation.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pushed through the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1989 that banned almost all products containing asbestos, but the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991 overturned the ruling.

The U.S. Senate in 2007 passed the Murray Bill, which would have prohibited the importation, manufacture, processing and distribution of all products containing asbestos, but the U.S. House failed to green light the measure, killing it.

Nothing has come close since then.

The use of asbestos in America dropped dramatically from a high of 803,000 metric tons in 1973 to a low of 1,180 metric tons in 2011, but its use continues unheeded today. According to the EPA, it still can be found in the production of hundreds of products, including roofing felt, vinyl floor tile, corrugated cement sheets, cement pipe, gaskets, disk brake pads, automatic transmission components and millboard.

Although medical experts believe no amount of asbestos is considered safe around humans, the sordid history of its use in this country will continue until the product is banned with much-needed legislation.

2. Take Better Care of Our Veterans with Mesothelioma

No group in America has been hit harder by asbestos-related diseases than U.S. veterans. Almost a third of the 3,000 people diagnosed with mesothelioma in America annually have served in the military.

The widespread use of asbestos for critical uses like fireproofing, strengthening and insulating most everything the military built has led to inordinate amounts of veterans being diagnosed long after leaving the service.

Yet the U.S. government has done little to help those it hurt so badly with asbestos exposure. The VA Healthcare System, while better than it ever has been, still has no designated mesothelioma specialty center. Instead, veterans are left to flounder at their local VA facilities, which typically are not equipped to handle this rare, but aggressive cancer.

Renowned thoracic surgeons and mesothelioma specialists Abraham Lebenthal, in Boston, and Robert Cameron, in Los Angeles, have stepped forward and
offered their services to all veterans, but word has been slow to spread. Few VA doctors around the country have provided the necessary referrals the patients would need.

There is no system-wide infrastructure that would funnel mesothelioma patients to mesothelioma specialists. That needs to change.

The West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, where Cameron is director of thoracic surgery, is lobbying to become the first federally funded mesothelioma research and treatment program, but it needs the government funding to make it happen.

3. More Funding for Much-Needed Mesothelioma Research

It was definitively a step in the wrong direction when the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) eliminated the annual funding source for the National Mesothelioma Virtual Tissue Bank in 2013.

It was a crippling blow to the tissue bank, housed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and to mesothelioma researchers everywhere who used it. While other cancer research programs saw their funding reduced in 2013, the mesothelioma tissue bank was one of the few that saw its $1 million funding stream disappear completely.

Mesothelioma research traditionally has been shortchanged by both the public and private sectors because it is a rare cancer that receives little publicity. As an example, the
National Cancer Institute provided $631 million for breast cancer research in 2010, but only $6 million for mesothelioma.

The slow progress in developing better therapies for mesothelioma is directly related to the lack of research money and research. The Pacific Meso Center
in Los Angeles, for example, has several research projects idling in its laboratory while waiting for funding to proceed. It’s the same at other laboratories across the nation.

While those studying mesothelioma often are passionate about their work, few are doing it because there are no funds to fuel their work.

“Billions of dollars are changing hands [in mesothelioma lawsuits], but very little goes toward research,” Cameron said. “If more went there [for research], we might have a cure by now.”

4. Improved Therapies for Mesothelioma Patients

Steady progress is being made in a lot of different areas, but the sad fact is the majority of those diagnosed with mesothelioma today do not reach the two-year survival mark.

The most common treatment today remains a systemic chemotherapy regimen that falls short of any curative promises. Surgeries are improving, but the majority of those diagnosed are not surgical candidates for a number of reasons.

Unless a better chemotherapy drug combination is found, the future of treatment likely will be with immunotherapy or gene therapy, two options developing slowly, but now available at clinical trials. Both can avoid the often debilitating side effects of toxic chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy involves manipulating the body’s own immune system to fight off the growth of the cancer. It can be done by developing methods to supercharge the immune
system and ward off the cancer, or by manipulating cells so they can more easily recognize the cancer as foreign and destroy them.

Gene therapy involves manipulating a patient’s genes by repairing the defects that allowed the cancer to take hold. Treatments can replace faulty genes with new ones that will either cure the disease or improve its outcome. Often, it is accomplished with the help of a modified virus, like measles or even small pox, in a clinical trial.

To have access to better therapies now – and develop them for the future – patients must participate in clinical trials being conducted at various medical sites in the U.S. The newest, cutting edge therapies are yet to be approved by the FDA, but will remain a best option for many patients.

5. Raise Awareness Even More

Raising awareness about the toxicity of asbestos and the devastation of mesothelioma could be the key to progress on all fronts.

When it comes to banning asbestos, there is no better way than screaming louder and rattling the cages of public officials. If no one realizes the problem exists, nothing will get done. The majority of Americans think asbestos already has been eliminated, but it has not. It is part of everyday life.

Raising awareness is essential to raising more money for research that ultimately will lead to a cure for the disease. Raising awareness to the plight of veterans may be the only way they will receive access to the specialized centers they deserve.

Although the use of asbestos has dramatically declined in recent decades, it still exists in dangerous amounts within both residential and commercial construction built before the early 1980s. Raising awareness is the only way those dangers will become known and the incidence rate of mesothelioma will drop.

The renovation of homes and businesses often becomes a dangerous prospect today because people doing those projects are not aware of the dangers. Raising awareness will prompt public officials to make sure asbestos abatement is done safely in schools, churches and everywhere else it exists.

Raising awareness to the plight of those stricken with an asbestos-related disease is the best way to convince politicians to reject tort-reform bills like the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act, which could make it tougher for victims to receive compensation from the companies responsible for the asbestos that has killed so many.

Awareness is a good thing in so many regards.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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