Though the majority of scientific effort surrounding malignant mesothelioma is focused on improving patient outcomes, many scientists are working towards understanding how the disease develops, with an eye to potentially disrupting the process. A collaborative study headed by scientists from the University of Hawaii may have found the missing link between exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma tumor growth. The researchers believe that it is all tied to the release of a specific protein called HMGB1.
HMGB1 May Hold the Key to Mesothelioma
Though it has long been known that exposure to asbestos is what causes malignant mesothelioma, the question of how has stymied scientists. But according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a little-understood process known as autophagy and the release of a protein called HMGB1 may hold the answer.
Autophagy is a process in which damaged cells make use of their remaining, unharmed parts to preserve survival. According to the authors of the study, exposure to asbestos damages the cells of the mesothelium, but also releases a protein called HMGB1 that helps the damaged cells to survive.
Cell Survival Leads to Development of Mesothelioma Tumors
The researchers arrived at their conclusion after creating mice that were incapable of producing HMGB1 and then exposing their mesothelial cells to asbestos. They found that compared to mice with typical abilities to produce HMGB1, the mice without the ability experienced both less autophagy and much more extensive complete cell death, eliminating the possibility of tumor cells flourishing.
“We discovered that the release of HMGB1 upon asbestos exposure promoted autophagy, allowing a higher fraction of HM [mesothelial cells] to survive asbestos exposure,” the study’s authors wrote. They explain that though most cells experience complete death when exposed to asbestos fibers, some mesothelial cells survive and produce HMGB1, a protein that facilitates autophagy of the damaged cells. Rather than returning to a healthy state, they develop into the fatal tumors that lead to mesothelioma victims’ early and painful death.
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