£2.1m cash injection to help researchers detect asbestos cancer earlier

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Researchers studying why it can take decades for exposure to asbestos to develop into a cancer diagnosis are receiving £2.1 million funding to help tackle the “long and painful legacy” of the substance.

Mesothelioma, which currently has a very poor survival rate, most commonly starts in layers of tissue covering the lungs.

This can usually happen following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, which can come from some building materials.

While the material is now outlawed, mesothelioma cases have increased since the early 1990s, according to experts, who also said it can take more than 40 years to develop and to receive a diagnosis.

This is party due to early symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue and constant coughing being overlooked because they are similar to other illnesses.

The charity said rates are noticeably higher in the west of Scotland, which include the regions Ayrshire and Arran, Forth Valley, Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Lanarkshire, compared to the the country’s average.

According to Public Health Scotland (PHS) data collected between 2016 and 2020, these local authority areas together had more than half of the whole of Scotland’s reported mesothelioma cases (506 out of 992).

Cancer Research UK said around 100 of the 200 new cases in Scotland each year are reported in the west of the country.

PHS data released between 2015 and 2019 also showed only about four in 10 (44.3%) people diagnosed with mesothelioma in Scotland survive for one year or more.

The newly-funded team of researchers, led by professor Daniel Murphy at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, and professor Marion MacFarlane of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, hope to find new molecular features that could make it easier to diagnose and treat mesothelioma earlier, before symptoms appear.

Professor MacFarlane said mesothelioma does not respond to conventional therapy, and the mutations that drive it are not easily targeted with drugs.

“Due to the prolonged period between initial exposure and diagnosis, and difficulty in distinguishing pre-cancerous tissues to benign ones, the molecular features of early-stage disease are poorly understood,” she said.

Professor Murphy said a new programme, known as REMIT, and other Glasgow projects called PREDICT-Meso and IAMMED-Meso, will seek to form a comprehensive strategy for early detection, risk stratification and more effective treatments for mesothelioma patients.

“In order to develop new strategies for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma, we need a much deeper understanding of the basic biology behind how it progresses,” he said.

Noel Hynes, who works with the Clydebank Asbestos Group, offering support to others and their families who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illness, spoke about his father, Patrick, who died from mesothelioma in 2020.

“My dad worked on the shipyards for three or four years in the late 1950s and early 60s,” he said.

“He was working with concrete at the docks and other workers were breaking up sheets of asbestos next to him which caused a white dust.

“They were all breathing it in with no masks or protection back then – in those days they just got on with it.”

Mr Hynes’s father went on to work in other jobs, never working with asbestos again. But he started to feel breathless in 2017 and it became progressively worse until he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in October 2018 and he died, aged 91, in May 2020.

The father of seven, grandfather and great grandfather had been offered tests via a biopsy with potential further treatment but felt the long-term benefits of tests and treatment at his age would outweigh the short-term risks.

Mr Hynes, from Clydebank, added: “It’s awful to see what asbestos does. To see my dad, who hardly missed a day of work in his life and never complained, suffering with pain was just heart-breaking for the family to watch. He was such a strong, brave man.”

Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, Dr Iain Foulkes, said while new treatments that harness the immune system to attack mesothelioma are coming through, “the long and painful legacy of asbestos use is still sadly being felt today”.

“Survival remains poor and we need better ways to catch mesothelioma earlier,” he said.

“That’s why we’re funding more research to develop our understanding of this disease and make an even greater difference for patients.”

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