In June 2012, Dr. Joseph Friedberg, then co-director of the Penn Mesothelioma and Pleural Program, reported in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery that he and his medical team achieved an “unusually long survival” in mesothelioma patients undergoing surgery and photodynamic therapy (PDT).
Now, over four years later, Dr. Friedberg is heading up the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Mesothelioma and Thoracic Oncology Treatment and Research Center and has seen continued success with the lung-sparing radical pleurectomy/decortication (P/D) surgery, a complicated surgery that involves stripping away the diseased membrane lining the lung but keeps the lung intact.
“This [mesothelioma] is among the most virulent cancers known to man, and we have a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to have achieved results we can report in years not months even for these patients with such advanced disease,” said Dr. Friedberg said in a Dec. 14 press release.
In a study of 73 patients Dr. Friedberg operated on at Penn Medicine, who then received a therapy using a photosensitizing agent and light to kill microscopic cancer cells followed by chemotherapy (92% of patients), overall median survival was just one month shy of three years. Astonishingly, 19 of the patients saw that figure rise to 7.3 years. The team also reported that overall survival was three times higher than disease-free survival, the length of time until the cancer recurs.
“When you take the [entire] lung out, it’s a significant compromise in quality of life,” said Dr. Friedberg. “Although, from a technical perspective, it is more challenging to save the lung than to sacrifice it, it does appear that this technique helps to not only extend life but to also preserve quality of life.”
Pleural mesothelioma arises from asbestos fibers becoming lodged in the thin membrane encasing the lungs. Patients often are exposed to asbestos while working as plumbers, pipefitters, insulators, electricians, mechanics and certain other occupations. Mesothelioma symptoms, such as coughing and difficulty with breathing, tend to develop decades after the initial asbestos exposure. There is no cure for the cancer that affects nearly 3,000 Americans each year.
Expert Insight“Under Dr. Friedberg’s leadership, our new Mesothelioma and Thoracic Oncology Treatment and Research Center is fast becoming a major center for important scientific discovery as well as highly specialized, multidisciplinary care for patients with mesothelioma and other thoracic cancers.”
Oncology surgeons must choose between P/D or extrapleural pneumonectomy when deciding to operate on pleural mesothelioma patients. The former spares the lung, whereas the latter is a radical procedure that involves removing the patients diseased lung as well as the possible removal of the diaphragm, the pericardium and other extrapleural tissue.
These patient results are encouraging and they give hope to mesothelioma patients and their families. The mesothelioma community hopes for continued success and for more developments involving this treatment method.