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Malignant mesothelioma is a devastatingly aggressive form of cancer commonly associated with long-term asbestos exposure. This form of cancer often afflicts people whose employment included frequent asbestos contact. This includes individuals working in construction, automobile or vinyl manufacturing, and HVAC repair and installation. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that grows and spreads rapidly.
Mesothelioma can remain dormant (remaining symptomatic for several years) for decades asbestos exposure. Since mesothelioma can grow and rapidly, however, it is important to be diagnosed early. Finding an effective treatment is often a challenge. Recent research suggest therapies involving apoptosis induction may prove promising for treatment of the disease.
What is apoptosis?
Apoptosis is a pre-programmed process which causes the death of a living cell. In other words, apoptosis is a form of “cellular suicide,” a type of ticking time bomb aimed at specific cells or cell types. Although the process sounds a bit gruesome, apoptosis serves a positive purpose at various stages of human development. For example, in utero humans have extra tissue connecting their fingers and toes in a web-like formation. Apoptosis is responsible for “dissolving” the webbing, leaving separate and distinctive digits we recognize as fingers and toes.
Similarly, when development of the central nervous system begins, mass quantities of brain cells are formed. Apoptosis is responsible for eliminating unnecessary cells allowing for normal brain function.
What causes apoptosis?
In nature, apoptosis is triggered by certain hormonal processes. For example, apoptosis plays a prominent role in first menses. However, apoptosis can also be pathological. Stress can cause unhealthy apoptosis. More apoptosis is seen in individuals with certain viruses or neurological dysfunction, including people with AIDS or Parkinson’s disease. Conversely, people with cancer, such as malignant mesothelioma, show lower than normal rates of apoptosis.
Apoptosis Induction: A Closer Look
The theory behind apoptosis for cancer treatment is to see if purposefully inducing apoptosis could have a therapeutic effect. Several researchers have been studying the possibilities. Here is a brief overview of their findings.
Initially intended as a treatment for alcoholism, disulfiram (brand name Antabuse) is a drug currently being explored as an alternative treatment for malignant mesothelioma. Researchers found that malignant mesothelioma cells, when exposed to disulfiram, became apoptotic, eventually dying off. These findings suggest disulfiram may be a viable treatment option for people with certain types of mesothelioma.
Lovastatin is a statin drug typically used to treat high blood cholesterol. However, U.S. researchers at the University of Minnesota have discovered lovastatin has another interesting side effect. When administered to human malignant mesothelioma cells, lovastatin causes those cells to undergo apoptosis. This could potentially decrease growth and halt thespread of mesothelioma tumors. Thus, lovastatin, a usually well-tolerated drug, could be paired with other treatment methodologies, enhancing cancer-fighting properties.
Gene Therapy: Antisense and Antisurvivin
In the modern world, the sciences of genetics and genomics are constantly discovering new ways to fight cancer. For example, gene therapy is becoming a viable option, especially for the treatment of malignant mesothelioma. Recent research from the United States and Switzerland indicate gene therapies utilizing antisense and antisurvivin treatments have tremendous potential. These treatments induce apoptosis in cancer cells at the most basic level, causing protein breakdown and rendering cells inactive. Researchers hope these forms of gene therapy could work in eradicating tumors, particularly when combined with other means of treatment.
What Does this Mean for the Future of Mesothelioma Treatment?
Researchers hope discovering methods to selectively induce apoptosis of cancerous cells will lead to longer lives for those with malignant mesothelioma and other types of cancer. This is particularly positive due to the low incidence of adverse side-effects with these treatment options. Therefore, if proven effective, apoptosis induction could be the future of mesothelioma treatment.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.