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Mesothelioma was formally named in 1908 and linked to asbestos in the 1930s. But early cases can be dated back to the 1760s. Today, researchers continue working to improve its diagnosis and treatment. These efforts may make history and lead to a more hopeful future for mesothelioma patients.

01. Origins of Mesothelioma

When Was Mesothelioma First Discovered?

With the help of modern medical knowledge, scientists have traced mesothelioma cases back to 1767. But until the 1900s, mesothelioma was an unnamed, mysterious condition.

Today, mesothelioma is known to be a rare cancer that develops in the linings of several organs. It most commonly develops in the pleura (lining of the lungs) and the peritoneum (lining of the abdomen).

In recent decades, researchers have begun to understand this cancer better. This understanding has led to valuable insights, like linking asbestos exposure to mesothelioma. Pivotal events now comprise a detailed timeline of mesothelioma’s history.

Timeline of Important Mesothelioma Historical Events

  • 1767: Joseph Lietaud reported the first two cases of pleural tumors. These are now the earliest suspected mesothelioma cases.
  • 1908: J.G. Adami coined the name “mesothelioma” to refer to this cancer.
  • 1935: A paper was published, suggesting a link between mesothelioma and occupational asbestos exposure.
  • 1943: H.W. Wedler reported a connection between asbestosis and pleural cancer.
  • 1964: Dr. Irving J. Selikoff shared findings from his study about mesothelioma and lung cancer. This included mortality data from these two cancers in a group of asbestos workers from New York and New Jersey. Among the workers, he recorded numerous deaths from pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma.
  • 1989: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a partial ban on asbestos and asbestos products.
  • 2004: A chemotherapy regimen earned U.S. regulatory approval for treating pleural mesothelioma.
  • 2019: The EPA further restricted the use of asbestos products that were not included in the 1989 regulations.
  • 2020: An immunotherapy regimen earned U.S. regulatory approval for treating pleural mesothelioma.
  • 2020: The EPA published the Final Risk Evaluation for Asbestos, Part 1: Chrysotile Asbestos. The EPA reported that all ongoing uses of chrysotile asbestos pose an unreasonable risk to human health. The EPA also stated plans to develop a risk management rule for asbestos exposure prevention.
  • 2024: The EPA finalized its rule on chrysotile asbestos, effectively banning it. Industries still using chrysotile products were given 5 – 12 years to phase them out.

The rarity of mesothelioma has impacted research into the cancer. In 2019, reports showed approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma. This was less than 0.2% of all cancer cases that year. As a result, few patients can participate in clinical trials.

Still, scientists continue making promising strides in diagnosing and treating mesothelioma.

02. Key Studies

Historical Asbestos and Mesothelioma Studies

Mesothelioma research began in the 1900s, more than 150 years after pleural tumors were first reported. These studies have established a connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.

This pivotal research helped the medical community identify mesothelioma as a distinct diagnosis and understand its development. It also played a significant role in classifying asbestos as a carcinogen.

Linking Asbestosis and Cancer

In 1943, researcher H.W. Wedler made a significant connection between pleural cancers and asbestosis. Asbestosis is a lung condition that was already known to be asbestos-related. His research showed that asbestos exposure may also cause cancer to develop.

This groundbreaking study on German asbestos workers assessed asbestos occupational health risks. Wedler reported that 20% of these workers developed cancer. Most of the diagnoses were lung cancer, but some were diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Wedler determined that this rate of cancer diagnoses was too high to be a coincidence. His findings sparked a collective understanding about the dangers of asbestos and its potential to cause cancer.

Making the Connection Between Asbestos and Mesothelioma

In 1960, the British Journal of Industrial Medicine published a paper by researcher J.C. Wagner and physician Chris Sleggs. It documented the connection between mesothelioma and asbestos exposure.

They analyzed 33 cases of diffuse pleural mesothelioma among residents of South Africa’s Cape Province. This region is known for its asbestos mines.

All but one of the cases had confirmed exposure to crocidolite asbestos. This emphasized the mineral’s significant health risks and its direct link with mesothelioma.

Studying Asbestos Workers’ Health Risks

In 1964, American physician Dr. Irving Selikoff published a study of more than 600 asbestos union workers in the New York area. He determined the mortality rate from lung and pleural cancer was 6.8 times the general population rate. Selikoff also found a “strikingly high” incidence of pleural mesothelioma in this group.

Then, in 1972, Dr. Molly Newhouse investigated an asbestos factory in London. She linked asbestos exposure to the workers’ increased rates of cancer and respiratory disease deaths. These two studies helped to underscore the serious health risks posed by asbestos.

03. Treatment History

History of Mesothelioma Treatment

Through clinical trials, researchers have made significant progress in developing effective mesothelioma treatments. Many treatment options are now available, depending on each individual case. Therapies like surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy may improve survival and ease symptoms.

As research continues, once-standard treatments may become outdated. Radiation therapy, for instance, has become less common in recent years.

Mesothelioma clinical trials continue exploring promising therapies. These trials strive to refine treatment methods and, hopefully, one day find a cure. While scientists have not yet found one, there is a potential for future breakthroughs.

Advancements in Surgery for Mesothelioma

For decades, surgery has been a valuable mesothelioma treatment option. After surgery, patients have experienced benefits ranging from improved quality of life to extended survival.

Today, treatment combinations often use surgery alongside other therapies. For instance, surgery combined with chemotherapy can lead to improved survival for qualified patients.

Doctors and researchers also continue to improve the surgery methods themselves. Extrapleural pneumonectomy (EPP) is a mesothelioma lung removal surgery that was once popular. First performed in the 1970s, it can remove tumors and prolong survival for some patients.

But this extensive surgery also carries many risks. Recovery is slow, and serious complications can occur.

Researchers have continued improving pleural mesothelioma surgical options. Examples include pleurectomy/decortication (P/D) and extended pleurectomy/decortication (eP/D). Both surgeries are effective and generally safer than EPP.

Advancements in Chemotherapy for Mesothelioma

For decades, advances have continued in chemotherapy drugs and treatment methods. Researchers began studying chemotherapy in the early 1910s. Since then, scientists have developed many chemo varieties that work best for specific diagnoses, including mesothelioma.

In recent years, combination chemotherapy has shown improved outcomes for many patients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved certain chemo drugs for mesothelioma. Other drugs, while not FDA-approved, may still be effective.

Alimta® (pemetrexed) plus cisplatin is a popular chemo combination for pleural mesothelioma. One study found that compared to cisplatin alone, this combination extended pleural mesothelioma survival by about 30%.

Scientists have also developed localized forms of chemotherapy. With these approaches, the drugs may also be heated. Local methods deliver the drugs to targeted areas rather than the whole body. For mesothelioma, localized chemo methods include:

Often, doctors will administer these chemo drugs after surgery. Various clinical trials have achieved promising outcomes with these combined treatments.

Typically, the median survival for patients undergoing cytoreductive surgery (CRS)+HIPEC ranges from 4 to 8 years. But some patients who qualify for additional HIPEC or NIPEC have survived for more than 13 years. Researchers continue to test these and other chemo approaches for mesothelioma.

Ongoing Mesothelioma Treatment Research

Ongoing clinical trials investigate new mesothelioma drugs and treatment methods. Some trials also work to improve existing therapies, like chemotherapy and surgery.

For instance, immunotherapy is generally considered a safe, effective option for mesothelioma. Researchers have also seen promise in emerging treatments, such as photodynamic therapy and Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields). Some trials for these treatments have helped mesothelioma patients survive months or years beyond their initial prognosis.

One clinical trial used a TTFields system combined with chemo on 80 patients who were not eligible for surgery. Participants’ median survival was 18.2 months, a 30% – 40% increase. These promising results led to FDA clearance of the combination, helping it become more widely available.

Immunotherapy for Mesothelioma

Immunotherapy is a cutting-edge cancer treatment that helps patients’ immune systems find and attack cancer cells. This treatment has generally proven effective and has more tolerable side effects than many other standard treatments.

In 2020, the FDA approved a combination of Opdivo® (nivolumab) and Yervoy® (ipilimumab) for inoperable pleural mesothelioma. Various studies showed improved survival, among other benefits. Researchers continue studying other immunotherapies for mesothelioma.

Emerging therapies from clinical trials are a crucial part of mesothelioma treatment and research. These trials can lead to innovative treatments that offer new hope for patients.

04. Research Today & Tomorrow

Current and Future Mesothelioma Research

Mesothelioma research has led to advances that help doctors understand this rare cancer. Research has also helped make it easier to diagnose and treat mesothelioma. These efforts aim to diagnose mesothelioma earlier and improve treatment options. Specialists may have the best understanding of these options.

Patients can work with mesothelioma doctors who understand this disease. Their extensive knowledge allows them to choose the treatments that fit each patient. Mesothelioma doctors can also connect eligible, interested patients with clinical trials at many notable cancer centers.

Various mesothelioma cancer centers across the United States specialize in treating this cancer. Some hospitals also have dedicated mesothelioma research programs, like the International Mesothelioma Program in Boston. These programs and centers help lead ongoing research efforts, striving to better understand mesothelioma and work toward a cure.

05. Common Questions

Common Questions About Mesothelioma History

When was mesothelioma first diagnosed?

Today, researchers can trace mesothelioma cases back to 1767. But at that time, the diagnosis was unknown. In 1908, a scientist named J. G. Adami coined the term “mesothelioma.” In the 1930s, researchers began identifying its characteristics and causes. This later led to its classification as a distinct diagnosis.

When was asbestos first linked to mesothelioma?

A 1935 paper first suggested a link between occupational asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. Shortly after this paper was published, researchers began studying this asbestos-mesothelioma link more heavily. In the 1960s, significant research further highlighted the connection.