Mesothelioma Research

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James Stevenson, M.D. Thoracic Medical Oncologist

Scientists and doctors use mesothelioma research studies to improve diagnosis and treatment of this asbestos-related cancer. Some researchers investigate basic mesothelioma science, such as how the cancer grows and spreads. Research and clinical trials can help doctors discover new treatments and improve prognosis for their patients.

01. Research Importance

The Importance of Mesothelioma Research

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer that has around 3,000 newly diagnosed cases in the United States each year. Due to its rarity, there isn’t as much data around mesothelioma as there is for other, more common cancers, such as lung cancer. Malignant mesothelioma research plays a crucial role for patients for a variety of reasons.

Improved Diagnostic Tools

Early detection can influence prognosis for mesothelioma patients. If the disease is caught in the early stages, more treatment options are available. Treatments can also be more aggressive, and patients typically face better mesothelioma survival rates than those diagnosed at stage 3 or stage 4.

Blood Tests and Biomarkers

One area of recent improvement in mesothelioma diagnostic tools is blood tests and biomarkers. Researchers continue to find biomarkers, or substances in the blood, that can suggest a mesothelioma diagnosis, show symptoms of mesothelioma or demonstrate a history of asbestos exposure, the only known cause of the disease.

One of the newest biomarkers is HMGB1. A recent study used HMGB1 to evaluate study participants’ past asbestos exposure. Researchers successfully used HMGB1 to:

  • Distinguish asbestos-exposed individuals from those without exposure
  • Distinguish mesothelioma patients from individuals without asbestos exposure
  • Distinguish mesothelioma patients from healthy individuals with a history of asbestos exposure

Blood tests cannot diagnose mesothelioma on their own. However, they can prompt physicians to conduct imaging scans and biopsies.

Mesothelioma Breath Test

One promising new diagnostic tool is a mesothelioma breath test. During this test, a person would breathe into a device or container. Then a machine or tool would analyze their breath. From that analysis, doctors might be able to diagnose mesothelioma.

Gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is a type of breath analysis tool. GC-MS has been 97% accurate in distinguishing mesothelioma patients from healthy asbestos-exposed individuals.

More research is required to validate this technology. At least one mesothelioma breath test clinical trial is currently working on that validation.

Emerging Treatments and Clinical Trials

Malignant mesothelioma patients typically face survival ranging from one to more than 5.5 years. However, advancements in mesothelioma treatment offer hope in improving prognosis.

Before becoming a treatment option, newer treatments are tested in clinical trials. Patients must meet certain criteria to participate, but clinical trials are often an option for those not responding to the standard of care. If successful, clinical trials have the potential to gain FDA approval and status as a first- or second-line treatment option.

Newer treatments that have shown some success include gene therapy, immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy. Photodynamic therapy, in particular, has been a focus of several recent studies. Pleural mesothelioma patients survived as long as 7.3 years after photodynamic therapy combined with surgery and chemotherapy.

Improved Standard Treatments

Advancements have also been made to existing standards of care, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Some of those advances have improved the way these therapies are combined. Mesothelioma specialists continue to test and improve these treatments.

Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recently updated their guidelines to include a combination of Alimta®, cisplatin and bevacizumab as a first-line treatment, combining chemotherapy drugs with a drug that targets tumor blood vessels. The NCCN recognizes that this is only an option for patients not eligible for surgery. In a recent study of 448 patients, half treated with all three drugs and half treated without bevacizumab, overall survival improved for those treated with the full combination.

The combination of the three drugs extended survival to 18.8 months. However, the combination of just Alimta® and cisplatin had a median survival of 16.1 months.

Immunotherapy drugs, such as pembrolizumab and nivolumab/ipilimumab, have also shown effectiveness as second-line options for patients whose mesothelioma has progressed after front-line treatment. These drugs are now included as recommended therapies in current NCCN guidelines.

Innovative Radiation Therapies

Researchers have studied how combined radiotherapy and surgery can be more effective in treating mesothelioma. One radiation therapy advancement is the SMART method. SMART stands for Surgery for Mesothelioma After Radiation Therapy.

This treatment plan begins with radiation therapy and is followed by a surgery called extrapleural pneumonectomy. In one study, the SMART method extended median survival of epithelial mesothelioma patients to 42.8 months.

Researchers and advocates of SMART continue to try and improve the efficacy of this option, also finding success in the combination of radiation therapy and immunotherapy prior to surgery. Radiation therapy, called IMRT, applied to the pleural surfaces after lung-sparing pleurectomy has also been investigated and found to be safe with promising effectiveness.

Improved Palliative Care

Palliative care plays an important role in mesothelioma treatment, helping reduce symptoms for patients. As cancer cells spread throughout the body, patients may experience more symptoms, as well as side effects from treatments. Palliative care can offer symptomatic relief and a higher quality of life.

Mesothelioma case studies continue to analyze the effectiveness of particular palliative treatments for both mesothelioma patients and mesothelioma survivors. For example, recent studies have looked into the palliative effects of radiation therapy on pleural mesothelioma patients.

In one study, palliative radiotherapy was reported to improve symptoms in more than 50% of mesothelioma patients. Researchers continue to look into how radiation therapy can be used palliatively on its own and in combination with other treatment techniques.

Understanding Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type, making up around 80 – 90% of all cases, followed by peritoneal with 15 – 20%. Pericardial and testicular mesothelioma each account for 1% or less of all mesothelioma cases. There are also rare cell types that affect even fewer individuals. Case studies most commonly cover malignant pleural mesothelioma, but research is still limited.

As more cases of mesothelioma emerge, new case studies are published and the number of cases analyzed increases, researchers can better understand mesothelioma statistics, cancer progression, successful treatments, risk factors and other information that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

Mesothelioma and Genetics

One study of interest is genetics and mesothelioma. Studies throughout the past decade have explored how genetics may be able to identify individuals that are more at risk to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos cancers. During histology, specialists can look at patient DNA to observe chromosomal losses and gains, pinpointing connections in cases of patients with malignant mesothelioma. More research is needed to determine their efficacy in assisting with diagnosis and prognosis of the disease.

The BAP1 gene is a tumor suppressor gene that has shown links to pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer and malignant mesothelioma. Studies have found a number of malignant mesothelioma cases with alterations to the BAP1 gene. One such study evaluated benign and malignant mesothelioma tumors. BAP1 was functional in all benign tumors. Conversely, 66% of mesothelioma tumors did not express BAP1. BAP1 has not become an official diagnostic test for mesothelioma. But, researchers say a finding of BAP1 loss should trigger further evaluation of a patient.

Mutated Genes in Mesothelioma
  • BAP1
  • Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor 2A gene (CDKN2A)
  • Neurofibromin 2 (NF2)
  • P53

Another gene commonly implicated in cancer is P53. In fact, experts say P53 is the most commonly mutated gene present in human cancers. Multiple studies have found P53 mutations in mesothelioma tumors.

Researchers continue investigating the genetic components of mesothelioma. As more genes are implicated, scientists may find ways to address these genetic changes. This information may also help develop earlier mesothelioma detection methods.

02. Continued Research

The Need for Continued Mesothelioma Research

Diagnostic tools and treatment options for mesothelioma, as well as understanding of the disease have improved throughout the years. However, there is still a large need for more data, tools to help with early detection, better treatment options and a cure for mesothelioma, stressing the importance of continued mesothelioma cancer research.

Research is crucial not just for physicians when addressing and treating the disease, but for patients and their loved ones seeking to better understand their diagnosis, treatment options and prognosis.

The mesothelioma community is comprised of many survivors, patients, loved ones, specialists, researchers, organizations and foundations dedicated to raising awareness of the disease and funding to continue research efforts.

03. Research Studies

Selected Mesothelioma Research Studies

Scientists and doctors use mesothelioma research studies to improve diagnosis and treatment of this asbestos-related cancer. Some researchers investigate basic mesothelioma science, such as how the cancer grows and spreads. Research and clinical trials can help doctors discover new treatments and improve prognosis for their patients.