If you’re a man, you are far more likely than a woman to develop or have mesothelioma. But in certain locales around the U.S., the opposite is true.
Why women in those places should be more prone than men to become mesothelioma patients is a mystery.
But a recently awarded $10-million federal grant to mesothelioma researchers at the University of Pennsylvania could help them find the answer.
It may help them answer other questions as well, like how to render toxic asbestos harmless so that it never causes mesothelioma after you breathe or swallow it.
The $10 million goes specifically to the university’s Perelman School of Medicine where it will fund activities at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.
Mesothelioma Cluster in Pennsylvania
A number of those research activities revolve around the community of Ambler, Pennsylvania.
For some time now, the center has been studying the effects of asbestos exposure on past and present residents of this suburb 20 miles north of Philadelphia.
Ambler is home to the federally designated BioRit Asbestos Superfund site. Once upon a time there stood at that location a massive asbestos processing factory.
The plant became operational in the late 1880s. Although it boarded up its windows and shuttered its doors long ago, asbestos remains very much a health threat to people from or in Ambler and vicinity.
Ambler is of special interest to the Penn researchers because it’s one of those places where the mesothelioma risk to women surpasses the risk to men.
However, the knowledge gleaned from the Ambler-focused research will almost surely be of benefit to people in or from other communities across the U.S. where asbestos operations once occurred.
The researchers plan to undertake six projects in the hope of learning:
• How the asbestos exposure pathways that exist in and around Ambler were able to give rise to a mesothelioma cluster in which women face a bigger cancer risk than men.
• Whether mesothelioma susceptibility can be passed to victims by heredity.
• If a blood test can predict mesothelioma.
• If mesothelioma and the other asbestos-related diseases can be stopped before they start.
• What really happens once asbestos enters the environment.
• How asbestos can be turned into a nontoxic substance on the spot, without first having to transport it to a remediation facility
Mesothelioma Research Dollars Coming Over Several Years
The $10 million to pay for all this research won’t be doled in a lump sum. Rather, it will be given to the scientists annually for each of the next four years.
All of the money will come from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
The researchers will — as they do now — coordinate their work through an organization known as the Penn Superfund Research and Training Program Center.
Participating in the research will be investigators from the Abramson Cancer Center, Penn School of Arts and Sciences, and Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Ideas about precisely what to research were contributed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which was among the first to notice the Ambler mesothelioma cluster and the fact that it was hitting women hardest.
The research won’t be conducted exclusively by lab specialists in the biological sciences. Also involved will be sociologists who plan to conduct a study to learn about the lives and backgrounds of residents of Ambler.
But the real nitty-gritty will be the province of the white-coat crowd, which will be grouped into project teams.
Mesothelioma Research Teams Reveal Plans
One team is slated to work on the development of a blood test to identify who has and hasn’t been exposed to asbestos and to see if mesothelioma has a genetic link.
For these purposes, the team plans to rely on a mesothelioma tumor-suppressor knockout mouse model along with blood samples from workers who were heavily exposed to asbestos.
The National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos Related Cancer at Wayne State University and Philadelphia Insulators and Asbestos Workers Local 14 Union will be the source of the blood samples.
Another team focused on mesothelioma prevention will test out an antioxidant derived from flaxseed. The test subjects will be lab mice that have been exposed to asbestos.
If mesothelioma cells start showing up, the researchers indicate they want to see how well this antioxidant works as a therapeutic agent.
Still another team will try to get a handle on how asbestos travels through the environment by studying translucent soil substitutes and a nano-aquarium.
The project in which scientists try to transform asbestos from toxic to nontoxic will involve letting fungus from the mycorrhiza family of spores come into contact with particles of the mineral.
The funguses should then cause the asbestos particles to break down and lose their capacity for causing harm.
To see if the funguses really can break down asbestos, the scientists plan to then expose the mouse model to then-hopefully harmless — or, at least, less harmful — mineral.