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Catching a Killer - New Steps Taken in Treating Mesothelioma

By Maggie Kay

There's a silent killer out there. It creeps up on its victims, attacks them quietly and unsuspectingly, and initiates a wound that develops over many years before it eventually causes pain. This unstoppable murderer is known as mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a malignant tumor that develops on the mesothelial cells of either the lungs, heart or abdominal organs, and plagues those who have been exposed to asbestos for a prolonged period of time.

Many who fall victim to this disease are people who have worked in specific trades or fields prior to the 1970s, such as blacksmiths, electricians, millwrights, and oil refinery workers.

Since it can take up to forty years for symptoms to surface, mesothelioma-related deaths are higher than ever in the 21st century. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that 1,493 people died from asbestos in 2000, compared to 77 people in 1968.

Mesothelioma treatment methods differ depending on the stage of the cancer upon detection, as well as the patient's age and personal choice of treatment. The four distinct stages of the disease are a factor in determining the type of mesothelioma treatment that can be carried out.

The first stage is when the tumor has had limited growth on the pleural lining (the lining of the lungs). At this stage, an attempt can be made to surgically remove the entire tumor. However, if the tumor is detected at a later stage when it has invaded surrounding areas, it is considered incurable.

Traditionally, the later stages of mesothelioma have been treated with either chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells while radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.

Although mesothelioma treatment methods have been proven to prolong patients' lives, they cannot cure the disease. Ongoing clinical trials are dedicated to overcoming this debilitating illness. Current experimental treatments include the following:

Drug Therapy: A drug called Alimta, developed by Eli Lilly, has been shown to significantly increase the life expectancy of patients and decrease symptoms of the disease. It is the only chemotherapy drug to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Gene Therapy: This mesothelioma treatment is currently in the experimental stages. The process involves inserting a "suicide gene" directly into the tumor. This gene makes the cells sensitive to a normally ineffective drug called glanciclovir which destroys all the cancer cells and leaves the healthy cells unharmed.

Photodynamic Therapy: Still in its experimental stage, photodynamic therapy uses light to kill cancerous cells. The patient first receives a photosensitizer that only collects in cancerous cells. Fiberoptic cables are then placed in the body in order to focus the right frequency of light on the tumor. The photosensitizer is then caused to produce a toxic oxygen molecule that kills the cancer cell.

Immunotherapy: Also referred to as biological therapy, this mesothelioma treatment uses the body's personal immune system to defend itself against mesothelioma. It has been discovered that the immune system is capable of deciphering healthy cells from cancerous cells, and can thus eradicate those cells that cause cancer.

While treatment methods are still in the developmental or experimental stages, there is hope that one day all mesothelioma victims will be freed from the murderous hands of this fearsome disease.

Maggie Kay is a freelance writer from Montreal and is the head researcher and content manager of Mesothelioma Attorney Advice Center



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