The physical signs of malignant mesothelioma can take between 20 and 50 years to develop, and once you notice, the disease is likely to be in its advanced stages. Patients and doctors everywhere wonder if it’s at all possible to find out earlier whether an individual has been exposed to asbestos, and whether the body is experiencing any problems.
Think about it: Laboratory tests can often help doctors determine whether a person has cancer or other serious diseases. And when done routinely, these tests can help patients resolve these problems before they become life-threatening. Why isn’t there a similar mesothelioma screen?
Fortunately, scientists from Japan are working on making this a reality. If they succeed, future patients who have been exposed to asbestos may be able to take a blood test that can tell them if they’re about to develop mesothelioma – even before they start noticing any symptoms.
There are no current screening tools
When it comes to workers who have to handle asbestos, employers at these jobs often have policies that require chest X-rays every six months to look for pleural plaques, which are abnormal growths on the linings of the lungs that are a marker of asbestos exposure. The problem with this, though, is that the disease can develop without the presence of pleural plaques. Also, chest X-rays won’t necessarily spot early evidence of other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and lung cancer.
Some scientists have suggested that it may be useful to measure certain substances in the blood, such as osteopontin and certain peptides. Currently, these may not be suitable for early screening, but they may still be valuable as markers of disease progress, which is important during treatment.
The immune system may offer some answers
On their mission to create a mesothelioma screen, the team of scientists from Japan looked back on past studies on how the lungs are affected by silica, which shares some chemical properties with asbestos. Based on this information, the researchers thought it would be a good idea to look at the cells of the immune system.
For their experiment, the scientists brought two types of cells of the immune system – T cells and NK cells – into contact with chrysotile asbestos. This process caused changes in the cells that blocked their ability to suppress the development of tumors.
The researchers were also interested in conducting experiments to measure changes in the proteins found in blood that may provide evidence of early mesothelioma. So far they found 10 to 20 molecules that may make good candidates for a blood test, but large clinical trials are needed to make sure that such tests would work.
If successfully developed, a blood test would be an easier mesothelioma screen to apply to patients, compared to more invasive tests that are costly and expose people to radiation. Plus, blood tests can be performed more frequently and ultimately may help doctors determine whether certain patients require more extensive assessments, such as radiological scans.