Asbestos and a similar mineral called erionite are the only known causes of mesothelioma, a virulent cancer of the membranes that surround the lungs or abdominal organs. Currently, it is incurable. Most – though not all – mesothelioma patients worked in an industry that exposed them to asbestos. What is mysterious to scientists, however, is that only about 10 percent of people exposed to asbestos end up developing mesothelioma.
Now, a multi-center study out of Italy is shedding new light on a possible reason for the disparity in the development of mesothelioma. According to the authors, the answer may lie within patients’ genes.
The group conducted a “gene-environment interaction analysis” that involved asbestos exposure and fifteen different genetic abnormalities called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Although the testing method was highly complex, the conclusion was simple: Three specific SNPs (rs1508805, rs2501618, and rs5756444) were associated with elevated mesothelioma risk.
“GMDR analysis showed a strong malignant pleural mesothelioma risk due to asbestos exposure and suggested a possible synergistic effect between asbestos exposure and rs1508805, rs2501618, and rs5756444,” writes lead author Dr. Sara Tunesi of the Unit of Medical Statistics and Cancer Epidemiology at the University of Piemonte Orientale in Novara, Italy.
The report suggests that people with these particular SNPs are more likely to development mesothelioma if they are exposed to asbestos. Eventually, this kind of information might be used to develop mesothelioma screening tools for the most susceptible people.
Unfortunately, tens of thousands of people were exposed to asbestos in the mining, plumbing, electrical, construction and shipbuilding industries before the link was made between the versatile fibrous mineral and the deadly lung-related cancer, mesothelioma. While many developed countries have banned or strictly regulated asbestos, the incidence of mesothelioma is continuing to rise in third world countries where asbestos regulations are often lacking.
In the US alone, where mesothelioma is not banned, an estimated 2,500 people die of mesothelioma each year.
Tunesi, S, et al, “Gene-asbestos interaction in malignant pleural mesothelioma susceptibility”, July 2, 2015, Carcinogenesis, Epub ahead of print