A recent study by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in collaboration with researchers at Genentech has shed new light on a potential new mesothelioma treatment. Their research may help doctors target more effective ways to treat mesothelioma tumors, adding to the life expectancy for patients with this serious disease.
Mesothelioma is a rare but deadly form of cancer. Pleural mesothelioma, which affects the lining around the lungs, is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. There is no known cure at the current time, but scientists are making steady progress toward improving treatment.
Genetics Point Toward Successful Mesothelioma Treatment
In the study, which was published in the February 2016 issue of Nature Genetics, the researchers examined more than 200 malignant pleural mesothelioma tumors. By looking at the DNA of the tumors, they were able to identify thousands of different genetic mutations in these cancers. In particular, this new research found that 10 genes were the most affected by the altered DNA and RNA.
The research is important because some of the mutations are known to respond to current mesothelioma treatment. By creating a genetic profile of a specific patient’s tumor, a doctor may be able to prescribe a therapy that targets the specific genetic alterations in that tumor.
The study’s authors pointed out two therapies in particular, a BCR-ABL-1 inhibitor and anti-PD-L1 therapies, like the recently approved Keytruda, may be effective in particular circumstances in fighting tumors with specific genetic markers. One or more mesothelioma treatments currently available may be appropriate for different patients, based on the genetic composition of their tumors.
The researchers noted the importance of their findings in extending the lives of mesothelioma patients. Fewer than twenty percent of patients survive past five years; if a new mesothelioma treatment can extend that time, it is immensely valuable to the community of people who are suffering from mesothelioma and to the families of those patients.
Raphael Bueno, MD, chief of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and director of the Lung Center there, was the lead author on the study. In a statement after the release of the study, Dr. Bueno noted that, even if a particular genetic mutation is very rare, it is worthwhile pursuing a mesothelioma treatment that focuses on that mutation because it has the potential to make such a large difference in the life of that patient.
Next Steps in Mesothelioma Treatment
The research team involved in the study, which is titled, “Comprehensive genomic analysis of malignant pleural mesothelioma identifies recurrent mutations, gene fusions and splicing alterations,” has also charted a path to future research and mesothelioma treatment based on their findings.
This study highlighted the fact that a one size fits all approach does not work with mesothelioma. One important step in the future will be to genotype the tumors of patients with pleural mesothelioma and other types of mesothelioma. Genotyping is the process of sequencing a patient’s individual DNA to determine the exact places where mutations or genetic abnormalities occur. This information can help doctors and researchers pinpoint the available treatments which will be the most effective for particular patients.
By focusing in on the genetic signature of a particular tumor, doctors can harness the power of immunotherapies to fight the cancerous growth. Immunotherapy is a treatment that exploits the strength of a patient’s own immune system to fight back against disease. Cancer cells may have qualities that are vulnerable to a specific type of antibody within the patient’s body.
When scientists can map the DNA of a mesothelioma tumor, they open the possibility for therapies that stimulate the growth of specific immune cells to attack it. It’s like finding an opponent’s weak spots and taking the best advantage of that. By using these strategies, scientists may find more effective ways to deploy currently available mesothelioma treatment options.
Prevention is the Best Cure for Mesothelioma
While the researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Genentech see potential for better use of immunotherapies known to be effective in cancer treatment to help mesothelioma patients, current treatments can only go so far. The fact remains that the number of people newly diagnosed with mesothelioma each year – over 3,000 per year in the United States – has shown no signs of decreasing, as more people who were exposed to toxic asbestos develop this deadly disease.
While mesothelioma treatment and, ultimately, a cure for this cancer, are very important, reducing asbestos hazards and safely removing asbestos that still exists in buildings and ships and elsewhere in our built environment should be part of the solution.
In the meantime, the focus is squarely on getting help for patients who are currently suffering from mesothelioma caused by exposure to toxic asbestos fibers and those who will be diagnosed in the years to come.