Funding to tackle asbesto-linked cancer

Cancer Research UK is giving £2.1 million to Cambridge and Glasgow scientists to help solve the mystery of how exposure to asbestos can take decades to develop into mesothelioma.

The disease most commonly starts in layers of tissue covering the lungs and usually following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, but it can take over 40 years to develop. Early symptoms of mesothelioma can be easily overlooked because they are similar to other illnesses. They include chest pain, fatigue and a constant cough.

Professor Marion MacFarlane and team in Cambridge, and Professor Daniel Murphy and team in Glasgow, who have been awarded the funding, are looking to reveal what happens in the decades between initial exposure to asbestos and diagnosis. They hope to find new molecular features that could make it easier to diagnose and treat mesothelioma earlier, before symptoms appear.

The UK currently endures the highest incidence of mesothelioma worldwide, with the disease more prevalent in men due to occupation-related exposure.

There are around 2,300 new mesothelioma cases in England each year, with around 290 of these in the East of England.

The deputy director of the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit in Cambridge, Prof MacFarlane, said: “Mesothelioma doesn’t respond to conventional therapy and the mutations that drive it aren’t easily targeted with drugs.

“Due to the prolonged period between initial exposure and diagnosis, and difficulty in distinguishing pre-cancerous tissues to benign ones, the molecular features of early-stage disease are poorly understood.”

Prof Murphy, of the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute and University of Glasgow, added: “In order to develop new strategies for prevention and treatment of mesothelioma, we need a much deeper understanding of the basic biology behind how it progresses.”

There was widespread industrial use of asbestos between 1950 and 1980. While the material is now outlawed, mesothelioma cases have increased since the early 1990s.

Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: “Nearly half a century ago, Cancer Research UK scientists added to the understanding of just how dangerous asbestos could be. This research helped change health and safety regulations, reducing workers’ exposure to this deadly substance.

“Over the last two decades, Cancer Research UK-funded research has delivered progress in treating mesothelioma. New treatments that harness the immune system to attack mesothelioma are coming through, thanks to the hard work of researchers and generosity of our supporters.

“But the long and painful legacy of asbestos use is still sadly being felt today. Survival remains poor and we need better ways to catch mesothelioma earlier. That’s why we’re funding more research to develop our understanding of this disease and make an even greater difference for patients.”

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15 Mar 2023