How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer? Researchers Are Learning More.

test tubes in a lab

All forms of asbestos cause cancer when inhaled. Research dating back a century has irrefutably linked asbestos to mesothelioma and other diseases. Despite the wealth of knowledge on why asbestos fibers are dangerous and how asbestos fibers cause cancer, cutting-edge research continues on the subject.

Two recent studies have shed light on the underlying reasons why asbestos, when inhaled, causes cancer. This new research is important to help everyone understand just why it is so necessary to avoid asbestos exposure, and because further understanding of the dangers of asbestos can help point the way to better treatment.

Fibers Cause Inflammation

A study recently published in the medical journal Oncogene sheds light on how inhaling asbestos dust can lead to mesothelioma. According to researchers, asbestos fibers cause inflammation after becoming lodged in the mesothelium, the tissue lining of the lungs. The body’s immune system is unable to dislodge and clear these fibers, which leads to chronic tissue inflammation. This inflammation disrupts the body’s immune system, inhibiting its ability to fight off tumor growth.

The Swiss National Science Foundation funded the research. While the research is still early, a better understanding of how mesothelioma develops could help treatment. For example, it could better help doctors combat cancer cell growth by improving the body’s immune system, known as immunotherapy.

Exosomes May Spread Cancer

In another important study, researchers at the University of Vermont examined how malignant mesothelioma can spread. The authors of the study tracked “exosomes,” which can be excreted by cells, and how they may cause gene-altering effects in cells in another part of the body.

In the study, researchers used two cell groups, one of which they exposed to asbestos. The cells exposed to asbestos changed, for example by creating certain proteins. In a lab, the researchers then exposed the contaminated cell group’s exosomes to human cells. The human cells subsequently altered.

The most important takeaway from this study is that this research could lead to a “biomarker” for mesothelioma and asbestos-related illness risk. If scientists can take a blood test to check for the changes in proteins demonstrated by this study, then doctors could identify mesothelioma risk and potentially begin treatment earlier, improving patient outcomes.

Still a Long Way to Go

As with all cancer research, fully understanding mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases is complicated. Fortunately, research and clinical trials continue at a furious pace, and real strides continue to be made in understanding and treating mesothelioma. It remains urgent, as 3,000 new mesothelioma diagnoses occur every year.