For many people, 2016 has been a difficult year. There were a high number of deaths of celebrities and other notable people, a bitter and divisive presidential campaign and election, and a rash of battles and terrorist attacks in countries around the world, not to mention ongoing violence in our own country. On top of that, thousands of people have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, and are now facing tough decisions related to treatment and how to pay for the various expenses surrounding their diagnosis.
Given all of these struggles, especially any of those that have touched you personally, it can be difficult to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what we want to do. Because despite the fact that 2016 has been hard for many people, there has actually been a lot of progress in the realm of mesothelioma medicine, from detection and diagnosis to new treatments and the prospects of ongoing survival.
Here are just a few of the improvements we’ve seen over the last year.
Increased Research Funding for Mesothelioma
One of the major developments for mesothelioma this year is that it is receiving more attention as a disease that needs to be studied and the development of new treatments funded appropriately. Given the abundance of asbestos that still exists in homes, workplaces, and other buildings, the potential for everyone to be exposed at some point in their lives is high, making it a significant concern for public health everywhere.
One example of increased funding took place when the U.S. Department of Defense granted $3 million to the University of Hawaii Cancer Center to study risk factors and diagnostic methods related to mesothelioma. Given that many veterans are exposed to asbestos during their military careers, this is a significant step for helping those who develop a terrible disease during the course of their service for the country. The full amount is divided into small, focused grants.
A large part of the increase in funding for mesothelioma has come as part of the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, an effort initially lead by Vice President Joe Biden to accomplish a decade’s worth of cancer research in only five years. President Obama announced the effort in his State of Union speech before Congress back in January, and much of the year was spent setting in assessing the current state of cancer research and developing a plan to foster more cooperation between researchers, companies, and agencies, as well as build public-private partnerships.
With the presidential election and a new administration starting in January, there has been some concern over the continuation of the Cancer Moonshot. However, just a few short weeks ago, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, and it was signed into law just a few days later by President Obama. Among other things, this act provides for the ongoing funding needed to continue the Cancer Moonshot, which will ultimately help mesothelioma patients (along with those who have other forms of cancer) and drive additional developments in the future.
Better Mesothelioma Detection and Diagnosis
Back in October, we reported on three new methods of detecting and diagnosing mesothelioma that have been published in various academic papers just this year alone. Given that earlier diagnosis of mesothelioma is the single best way to improve prognosis (and survival time), these developments are incredibly positive.
The first method uses exomes (microscopic substances) in the blood that can be used to detect the presence of various forms of cancer, such as prostate, colorectal, and ovarian cancer. Building on previous research, a team of scientists was able to replicate the process to detect the presence of mesothelioma in the body.
Another method of detection that was announced this year was a new breath test, which could identify the presence of pleural mesothelioma, the most common form of the cancer that develops in the linings of the lungs. Applied properly, the test was able to distinguish between individuals who had pleural mesothelioma and those who did not with a nearly 90% accuracy rate, making it a great candidate for a diagnostic tool.
The third method we previously reported on was the use of a specific protein known as high-mobility group box 1 (HMGB1). Researchers were successfully able to distinguish between those who had mesothelioma, those who had been exposed to asbestos but who had not yet developed the disease, and those who had no asbestos exposure. Given the level of sensitivity of the test, it is especially promising for those who work in high-risk fields, such as construction, where they may be exposed to asbestos over a long period of time.
One other test that we did not previously write about was revealed earlier this month at the World Conference on Lung Cancer in Vienna, Austria. Researchers presented results from a study on another biomarker for another protein known as fibroblast growth factor 18 (FGF18), which was present in significantly higher concentrations in those who have mesothelioma versus those who do not. The level of FGF18 in the blood was also correlated with length of survival, making it a prognostic tool as well as a diagnostic tool.
Mesothelioma Treatment Improvements
When it comes to treating mesothelioma, the standard approach still primarily involves the use of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. However, as new clinical trials are continually testing new and emerging treatments, the promise of finding a way to improve survival and possibly even develop a cure becomes even greater.
Perhaps the most significant development for mesothelioma treatment in 2016 was the release of new guidelines by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). The NCCN includes dozens of the biggest cancer centers among its members, meaning that its guidelines will likely be followed in the treatment of hundreds, if not thousands, of those who are diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Specific to mesothelioma, in July the NCCN revised its recommendations for first-line treatment of unresectable (i.e., surgery is not an option) pleural mesothelioma to include the use of bevacizumab (Avastin) along with standard chemotherapy treatments of pemetrexed (Alimta) and cisplatin. This recommendation was based on the results of a study published earlier this year that showed the use of bevacizumab could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatments.
Another promising treatment that has been gaining momentum is pembrolizumab (Keytruda), a form of immunotherapy that has undergone a number of successful trials. While it is still not been approved to treat mesothelioma, two key approvals increased the approved uses of the drug this year. In August it was approved to treat patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Then, in October, Keytruda’s approval to treat metastatic non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) was expanded to include tumors with 50 percent or more PD-L1 expression. Anecdotally, some mesothelioma survivors and their families have attributed Keytruda with expanding their survival time.
Staying Hopeful in 2017
There’s no doubt that mesothelioma is still a scary disease, but the progress made this past year is promising. It also offers hope for the upcoming year, as we look forward to what new research is being done and how ongoing trials will provide even better ways to detect, diagnose, treat, and hopefully prevent mesothelioma in the future. Stay tuned for more stories of hope and survival in the new year!