Scientists in Cambridge and Glasgow have secured £2.1 million from Cancer Research UK to help discover why it can take decades for asbestos exposure to develop into mesothelioma.
The disease usually begins in the layers of tissue covering the lungs, after inhalation of asbestos fibers.
But it can take more than 40 years for symptoms to appear, and early symptoms — such as chest pain, fatigue, and a persistent cough — are easily overlooked because they resemble symptoms of other illnesses.
Now Professor Marion MacFarlane, Deputy Director of the Toxicology Unit at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, and Professor Daniel Murphy, from the Beatson Institute of Cancer Research UK and the University of Glasgow, their team will explore what happens between exposure and diagnosis.
They aim to find new molecular features to facilitate early diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma, before symptoms appear.
Professor McFarlane said: “Mesothelioma does not respond to conventional treatment and the mutations that cause it are not easily targeted with drugs.
“Because of the long period between initial exposure and diagnosis, and the difficulty in distinguishing between precancerous and benign tissue, the molecular features of early-stage disease are poorly understood.”
The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma worldwide, with the disease being more prevalent in men due to occupation-related exposure. There are around 2,300 new cases in England each year, including around 290 in the east of England.
Professor Murphy added: “In order to develop new strategies for preventing and treating mesothelioma, we need a much deeper understanding of the underlying biology behind how it progresses.”
Asbestos was widespread in industrial use between 1950 and 1980. While the substance is now banned, cases of mesothelioma have increased since the early 1990s.
Dr Ian Foulkes, Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, said:
For nearly half a century, Cancer Research UK scientists have added to the understanding of how dangerous asbestos can be. This research helped change health and safety regulations, reducing workers’ exposure to this deadly substance.
“Over the past two decades, research funded by Cancer Research UK has made progress in treating mesothelioma. New therapies harness the immune system to attack mesothelioma, thanks to the hard work of researchers and the generosity of our supporters.
“But the long and painful legacy of asbestos use is still being felt today. The survival rate remains poor and we need better ways to catch mesothelioma early. That is why we are funding more research to advance our understanding of this disease and make a bigger difference to patients.”
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