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Could “softener” drug help fight asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer?

20 July 2015

Researchers have suggested that it may be possible to “soften-up” cancers before hitting them with chemotherapy drugs.

A recent study has uncovered how tumours can become resistant to commonly used cancer fighting drugs.

A team from the University of Manchester suggest that drugs already in development may actually be able to counter resistances to make chemotherapy more effective.

The team were trying to determine how a class of drugs called taxanes work, as they are used to treat a range of various cancers, including breast, prostate and lung cancers.

While studying cancerous cells growing in a laboratory, they were able to show how taxanes can trigger cancer cells to kill themselves.

Resistance

At the same time, the research team discovered a key difference between cancers that were susceptible to the drugs and those which were inherently resistant, or later developed a resistance to the drug.

They found high levels of a particular protein in the cells that were resisting treatments.

However, there are drugs currently in development which have been found to neutralise the protein’s effects.

Professor Stephen Taylor, one of the researchers from the team at the University of Manchester, has said: “Potentially, combining this with taxanes, you could take resistant cancers and make them sensitive.

“These new inhibitors would essentially soften-up the cancer cells, so when they are treated; they are more likely to die.”

Concerns and improvements

One concern the team expressed was whether making the cancer cells more vulnerable to chemotherapy would also affect healthy tissue, also making it vulnerable and increase the risks of side effects occurring in patients. Although softened cancer cells would need less chemotherapy courses to fight them, this may also increase the sensitivity of healthy cells, causing them to suffer more damage.

Another major concern would be whether the drugs would be able to help fight lung and asbestos-related cancers, such as mesothelioma. Lung cancers and asbestos-related cancers are notoriously difficult to treat and if the drugs are shown to assist patients, this could be a huge step forwards to fighting these types of cancers.

The senior science information officer from Cancer Research UK, Dr Emma Smith, has said: “Predicting which patients will benefit most from different types of chemotherapy is essential if we’re going to make cancer treatments more effective.

“In cases where patients don’t benefit from taxane-based chemotherapy, doctors could add drugs that target the protein to overcome the cancers’ defences. Its still early days for this research but, if the results are confirmed in clinical trials, it has the potential to improve treatments for thousands of cancer patients.”

Mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancers

Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer caused, in the vast majority of cases, by exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.

It is quite a rare cancer, but it is becoming increasingly more common. Figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that more than 2,500 people are diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in the UK each year and according to the Department for Health and Pensions, 53,000 people will die from pleural mesothelioma between 2013 and 2037.

It is estimated that in the UK, more than 9 out of 10 men with mesothelioma and more than 8 out of 10 women have been in contact or were exposed to asbestos dust and fibres. We know that exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of pleural mesothelioma.

Dr Robin Rudd, a medical expert in mesothelioma and asbestos cases, has stated: “Mesothelioma can occur after a low level of asbestos exposure and there is no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk.”

This means that inhaling even a single asbestos fibre could potentially cause mesothelioma or an asbestos-related lung cancer.

Further reading

What is mesothelioma?

What is asbestos?

Cancer Research UK – Killer Combination


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