Advanced Technology Explains Mesothelioma Mechanisms

A new way of looking at mesothelioma cancer cells is revealing some important information about the ways in which asbestos fibers affect human lung tissue.

A group of Italian researchers used a combination of synchrotron soft X-ray imaging and fluorescence microscopy to shed light on exactly what makes asbestos fibers so deadly.  When it is inhaled, asbestos triggers a chain of events that can lead to mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lung lining, as well as a host of other serious lung diseases.  The goal of the Italian study was to better understand the response of lung tissue to asbestos, which can help scientists in their efforts to develop effective mesothelioma treatments.

In the lungs, iron-containing asbestos fibers irritate the tissue, causing minerals and proteins to cluster around the foreign fibers in a process known as biomineralization. The resulting clusters are known as ‘asbestos bodies’ and are believed to be the body’s effort to isolate asbestos from the surrounding tissue.  They are characteristic of mesothelioma and other asbestos-diseases.

With the help of the advanced imaging techniques, the researchers report having “revealed the location, distribution and elemental composition of asbestos bodies and associated nanometric structures.” Specifically, they found that the composition of the minerals that form the asbestos body can provide a distinct ‘fingerprint’ for the core asbestos fiber.  Chemical analysis showed the highest content of silicon was found close to the fiber itself while the outer edges of asbestos bodies tend to contain high amounts of magnesium, suggesting that magnesium may play a role in their formation.

The researchers concluded that the tests demonstrate the effectiveness of advanced synchrotron-based x-ray imaging and microspectroscopy for studying how lung tissue reacts to asbestos and causes mesothelioma.   Reporting in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicity they write, “The new results obtained by simultaneous structural and chemical analysis of tissue specimens have provided clear evidence that magnesium, in addition to iron, is also involved in the formation mechanisms of asbestos bodies.”

The study is the first time that mesothelioma-causing asbestos bodies have been evaluated in such high depth, revealing important details about asbestos bodies that even electron and optical microscopes have been unable to detect.  About 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year.


Pascolo, L et al, “Synchrotron soft X-ray imaging and fluorescence microscopy revdeal novel features of asbestos body morphology and composition in human lung tissues”, February 7, 2011, Particle and Fibre Toxicology.

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