In the future, patients with mesothelioma and other forms of cancer may receive medical treatment tailored to the genetics of their tumor. After all, cancer and other diseases stem from the complex interaction of multiple genetic and environmental factors.
Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, is closely associated with inhaling airborne asbestos fibers. Asbestos fibers lodge deep in the lungs causing inflammation that may cause genetic damage over time.
Mesothelioma produces an aggressive type of tumor. The median survival from diagnosis is just 12 months, creating a need for new treatment options to extend mesothelioma patients’ lives. Approximately, 3,000 people a year are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Many are retired workers and veterans who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
Cancer centers at large university-affiliated hospitals are starting to adopt genetic testing of tumors to understand tumors at a molecular level. Gene testing seeks to identify specific genes that may mutate and promote growth of cancer cells. When a gene contains a mutation, then the protein that the gene encodes is abnormal.
If doctors can identify a specific broken or mutant gene to target in a cancer patient, doctors then may be able to silence or “knock out” the troublemaker. Some cancer-causing genetic mutations switch the proteins that signals a cell to grow and divide —proteins called tyrosine kinases—to the permanent “on” position. Blocking tyrosine kinases has proven effective for treating certain human cancers including breast cancer, gastrointestinal tumors, leukemia and non-small cell lung cancer.
In a January 2011 article in the journal Neoplasia, researchers at Harvard Medical School reported on their research focused on trying to block certain proteins in 10 lines of mesothelioma cells. The researchers reported that the greatest reduction in the viability of the mesothelioma cells occurred when they blocked multiple types of receptor Tyrosine Kinases proteins rather than singling out individual proteins.
Genetic testing is changing doctors perception of cancer. Identifying the right gene to target may mean malignant tumors are treated more like an infectious disease after doctors understand the virus or bacteria that causes the disease.