Mesothelioma patients could soon be given a drug used for fighting skin cancer, which may extend their life by a further 12 months.

The fatal asbestos-related cancer of the lung linings remains obstinately resistant to all attempts at being completely eliminated from the body once the tumour cells have spread. In most cases, there can be a period of 15 to 50 years or more from the initial period of asbestos exposure when the fibre dust particles were inhaled to the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms.

With a confirmed diagnosis almost invariably occurring at a late stage in the spread of the cancer, a patient is not expected to live beyond 6 months and the use of various palliative treatments is designed to improve the quality of life remaining.

Obtaining only modest degrees of success, medical researchers around the world continue to investigate an ever growing number of potentially successful asbestosis treatments, which are aimed at extending life expectancy by developing more targeted treatments for victims of mesothelioma cancer.

Until now, it seemed that a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy remained the only consistent method capable of extending average patient survival rate beyond 2 to 12 months.

Research breakthrough

In early 2014, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fast tracked approval for the use of a drug designed to target advanced or untreatable skin cancer, which has also been used in lung cancer trials with positive results. Recently, it has been discovered that the drug has the capability to target ‘proteins’ in other types of cancers too.

A breakthrough in research being conducted in Spain has, for the first time, successfully identified a specific protein, which is found only in mesothelioma patients with the shortest life expectancy rates.

Researchers have previously targeted the specific protein, linked to a second protein, when attempting to slow the progress of other cancer types. Both proteins act together to prevent the body’s own immune system from fighting against the cancer. It has come to be generally considered that one of the most effective methods to combat disease is to harness the body’s capacity to develop a natural immunity and also to try and stop proteins from obstructing the process.

Better chance of survival

It is believed by researchers that a drug aimed at eliminating the two proteins from inhibiting the immune system’s attempts to destroy cancer cells will provide mesothelioma patients a better chance of survival and help extend their life.

Interestingly, the particular protein that researchers are now studying has not previously been associated with mesothelioma, but is now hoped will present a much clearer target for developing a more effective method to finally overcome the fatal cancer.

Results from the new trials carried out in Italy between 2002 and 2014 found the specific protein present in the tissue samples of one in five of a study group of 119 patients with malignant mesothelioma. Those patients with the highest levels of the protein were found to survive for the shortest average period of just under 5 months while those patients who tested negative for the protein lived for an average of just over 16 months.

Future of cancer treatment

Crucially, factors like asbestos exposure, smoking, gender and the stage the disease has reached had no effect on whether the patient was ‘positive’ for the specific protein expression. Of the one in five of mesothelioma patients who ‘expressed’ the specific protein, just under 20 per cent showed strong expression while more than 50 per cent showed only weak expression.

The use of ‘immunotherapy’ is believed to be the future of cancer treatment and currently, there are a number of similar drugs being tested, which have also shown positive results. Unlike chemotherapy, the drugs being tested appear to produce minimal side effects.

Many types of cancers, such as cervical, testicular, thyroid and malignant melanomas have seen mortality rates fall in recent years. However, mesothelioma, which accounts for less than one per cent of all cancers diagnosed, is still responsible for around 2,300 deaths in the UK each year.

Researchers suggest that by the targeted method of inhibiting the protein associated with poor survival outcomes, mesothelioma victims may soon have an improved life expectancy.