Austrian researchers have uncovered a potentially promising new treatment for malignant pleural mesothelioma: trabectedin, a chemotherapy medication already in use against other cancers. Interestingly enough, the drug, which goes by the brand Yondelis, is naturally occurring in the Caribbean sea cucumber, but can be synthetically produced for use in chemotherapy.
The Challenge of Mesothelioma Treatment
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the linings around internal organs, with the most common type invading the pleura, the lining that surrounds the lungs. Mesothelioma is historically very difficult to treat – a fast-growing, eventually fatal cancer caused by asbestos exposure, sometimes decades earlier and usually in an occupational setting.
According to the American Cancer Society, mesothelioma is hard to treat for several reasons:
- The cancer is usually not contained in a single tumor; rather, it spreads throughout the surrounding areas of the body, including nerves and blood vessels.
- It is so rare that few doctors have extensive experience treating it, so expertise is relatively rare.
- The patient may be too weakened to tolerate surgery.
- This cancer tends to recur after treatment.
Treatment usually consists of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these, but the disease can be resistant to successful treatment. Because the disease is eventually fatal or may be advanced, some patients choose to treat their symptoms, rather than undergoing invasive surgery or therapy with crippling side effects. For example, fluid buildup may be removed and pain management emphasized.
Because of the stubbornness of the disease and the lack of treatment options, mesothelioma patients may be encouraged to participate in clinical trials.
According to the Austrian study, the median survival of malignant pleural mesothelioma victims is between four and 12 months.
The Austrian Research
Against this backdrop, the discovery of a new treatment option for pleural mesothelioma patients is significant. The study’s results were published last month. Researchers at the Vienna General Hospital and the Comprehensive Cancer Center of MedUni Vienna showed that in both a cell culture and in an animal-based experiment (mice), trabectedin proved effective against mesothelioma cells, both alone and in combination with certain other drugs.
Trabectedin was considered a promising drug for pleural mesothelioma because not only has it been successful at fighting other cancers (ovarian and advanced soft tissue sarcoma), but also it does not harm healthy cells in the pleura.
Since the initial study, a clinical study in Italy has had positive initial results.
Anyone suffering from pleural mesothelioma can ask his or her physician about the potential for trabectedin as a treatment, perhaps in future clinical trials.