How does asbestos cause cancer?

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The size, shape, and high friability of asbestos particles account for the naturally occurring mineral’s tendency to cause cancer. Friability refers to a material’s capacity to be easily reduced to smaller particles. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all designated this mineral a known human carcinogen based on these physical properties.

Asbestos is considered a carcinogen because of its dangerous combination of small size, allowing it to suspend in the air as a fine dust that can be inhaled and swallowed, and its fibrous shape, which allows it to persist in the lungs and other tissues for long periods of time. Although there is still some contention, most specialists agree that the mechanism by which asbestos causes cancer is not chemical but rather physical. These physical mechanisms that instigate the development of cancer may be mechanical, meaning the damaging asbestos fibers interact with the body’s cells. However, the presence of asbestos particles may create unwanted signal channels as well, allowing for this cancer’s development.

Medical Awareness of Carcinogenic Properties

Despite the continued uncertainty regarding the actual trigger for cancer development, it became apparent early on that a conclusive link between asbestos exposure and cancer development did exist. Very shortly after the very first case reports from factories and businesses regarding employee illness were published, doctors were able to recognize similarities in these published cases and the patients they saw. Eventually the medical professionals of the time realized the occupational origin of these cancers, particularly in employees of trades that utilized asbestos.

These published case reports initially originated in England, Germany, and the United States in the 1930s. By the 1940s, the carcinogenic properties of asbestos were noted in many widely read medical journals. However, it was not until the carcinogenic properties of asbestos were widely publicized and acknowledged that a modern epidemiological mortality study was conducted, which allowed researchers to delve deeper into the mechanisms that cause asbestos-related cancers.

Over the past few decades, scientists have been able to recognize key distinctions between mesothelioma and other cancers. These differences include the way it metastasizes. Unlike other cancers, which often spread to major organs such as the brain in their later stages, mesothelioma tends to spread locally, meaning it continues to develop in tissues near where the cancer initially developed. In addition, mesothelioma’s 20- to 50-year latency period, which is the amount of time from initial exposure to tumor development, is another aspect of the disease that has been discovered in recent decades. Nevertheless, until very recently, doctors and scientists were no closer to locating a precise cause of this cancer or to improving current treatments and projected life expectancies .

Recent Breakthroughs

This past August , Dr. Michele Carbone, a researcher at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, discovered a link between a particular gene and the development of mesothelioma. According to this preliminary research, individuals with the BAP 1 gene may have a higher chance of developing this cancer. This discovery is important because it may help to predict who is at the highest risk for developing this cancer.

If individuals test positive for having this gene, they will be advised to avoid careers with the possibility for asbestos exposure, such as certain jobs in construction, emergency response, and chemical abatement. In addition, individuals with this genetic link that makes them more susceptible to mesothelioma who may have already suffered past exposure can receive more careful screening and take precautions to potentially slow the development of this disease. These precautions include avoiding unhealthy lifestyle habits that have been shown to contribute to this cancer’s development, such as smoking.

Now that researchers have located the gene potentially responsible for the development of mesothelioma, they are hopeful they can soon uncover an effective treatment. As Dr. Carbone, the lead researcher in this discovery, explained, “When you don’t know what is broken, you don’t know what to fix.” Now that he and his team have discovered what is causing this lethal cancer, he hopes that this knowledge will lead to a cure.


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