A new study into mesothelioma cancer has found that a genetic mutation may be responsible for an increased susceptibility in some individuals to contracting the deadly disease from exposure to the asbestos material.

Each year in the UK, around 2,000 deaths from incurable mesothelioma cancer are recorded. A continuing legacy from original regular exposure to asbestos decades earlier by thousands employed in the manufacturing, engineering and construction industries of the industrial north of England, Midlands and the south coast shipyards.

Since the late 1960s, the number of mesothelioma deaths has increased annually, despite prohibition of asbestos use from the 1970s and 80s until a complete ban was introduced by the end of the 1990s. In 2004 there were 1,969 mesothelioma deaths – more than 1 per cent of all UK malignant cancer deaths compared with 153 in 1968. In the next 50 years it is currently predicted that around 65,000 mesothelioma deaths are likely to occur.

Lack of asbestos awareness to the deadly health hazards of breathing in the fibre dust often meant that the first signs mesothelioma disease or asbestosis symptoms, which would not appear until some 15 – 40 years later, was sometimes not readily recognised or so easily diagnosed. Almost invariably, at an advanced stage of the disease, once confirmed,  survival could be as little as 6 months.

However, as new research reveals, not every single individual originally exposed to asbestos would necessarily succumb to an asbestos-related disease. It has been previously found that those workers who developed mesothelioma were often younger when first exposed to asbestos due to a higher vulnerability to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents by cells in younger age groups.

Other determining factors include mesothelioma patients who had another cancer diagnosis at the time of being diagnosed for mesothelioma, suggesting a greater genetic vulnerability to carcinogenic agents, and also those patients exposed to asbestos who had a parent or direct family member who received a cancer diagnosis. The offspring of those patients with a mesothelioma diagnosis were seven times more likely to be given a cancer diagnosis.

The current research has found the same genetic mutation in about 25 per cent of patients with mesothelioma but without a family history of the disease. Cancer research has sought to find the cause of why asbestos fibres trigger the onset of mesothelioma in some individuals and not others who were also originally exposed to asbestos.

While the present findings indicate the possibilities of a broader genetic susceptibility to cancer-causing agents, by itself, this does not mean that exposure to asbestos does not guarantee that a every single person will get mesothelioma. It appears that the combination of asbestos exposure, especially at an younger age and genetic susceptibility, are just two of the factors which may contribute towards developing mesothelioma.