Research into how asbestos cells interact with human cells and the affect on the body’s immune system using nanotube technology seeks to better understand the formation and treatment of the deadly asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma.

Due to the lack of proper asbestos awareness of the health risks and despite the ban on asbestos since the 1980s onwards, the legacy of the widespread use of the mineral as low cost insulation in UK industry, engineering and manufacturing throughout most of the twentieth century, still continues to this day. Up to 2005, it has been estimated that there were 100,000 deaths from asbestos-related diseases, and more than 2,000 fatalities from the incurable mesothelioma.

The exceptionally long gestation period of up to 40 years or more between the initial period of asbestos exposure when the asbestos fibre dust is inhaled and the first appearance of mesothlioma or asbestosis symptoms means that there still some 4,000 deaths each year and numbers forecast to rise to over 60,000 for the foreseeable future.

Inhaled asbestos fibres embed themselves permanently in the linings of the lungs, which can eventually cause asbestosis scarring or the formation of malignant mesothelioma tumours.

Medical science has been studying the processes by which the presence of ingested asbestos fibres interacts with human cells and the body’s immune system by using carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are cylindrical allotropes ( different forms) of carbon molecules with unusual properties used in electronics, optics and other fields of materials science and technology with a length-to-diameter ratio of up to 132,000,000:1. Ultra microscopic nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes can be used in medical treatments as vehicles to transport drugs to specific cells or locations in the human body.

Asbestos fibres are harmful because they are thin, long and insoluble, meaning they cannot be broken down in the lung. Tests conducted on rats using both long and shorter nanotubes showed that while the long tubes caused inflammation and scar formation, as would be found with the presence of asbestos fibres, the shorter nanotubes were not harmful.

The findings suggest that cells are better able to ingest smaller tubes but unable to handle the longer tubes, allowing them to stay in place to cause scarring, which may later lead to turning cells cancerous. Scientists have been trying to understand why cells are still attracted to nanotubes or asbestos fibres, which are too long to be fully ingested.

The latest research suggests that certain nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes and asbestos cells approach human cells at a 90-degree angle to reduce the amount of energy needed for the cell to overwhelm the particle, and with the rounded tip of the cell pointing forward. Human cell receptors are able to recognise the rounded tip of the asbestos cells as potentially containing useful nutrients, but are deceived by the cell – mistaking the particle for a sphere, rather than a long cylinder – and take in the rounded tip first.

It is because asbestos cells are long, the human cell is unable to completely ingest the asbestos cell, triggering a response which causes further inflammation and resistance to the body’s immune system.

Research continues to explore how cells interact with nanotubes and to stop the attraction between the round nanotip and the cell receptor.