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What We Learned About Mesothelioma – Five Key Lessons from 2015
2015 was a banner year for good news about treating the rare but almost always deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Important strides in diagnosis and treatment were made in the past twelve months, and the mesothelioma lawyers at Baron & Budd want to get the word out about the good works accomplished by leaders in the field of cancer medicine and law.
Here are five important advancements from 2015 to watch this year:
On October 2 an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda (pembrolizumab) was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of certain types of lung cancer, which could lead to its use in treating pleural mesothelioma, a malignant and aggressive cancer of the mesothelial lining of the lung, known as the pleura. Although initially approved for lung cancer, this innovative new therapy could eventually be approved to treat the other parts of the body that mesothelioma strikes, such as the linings of the abdominal cavity and heart.
Immunotherapy drugs work differently than cytotoxic drugs like chemotherapy, which damage cancerous cells so they cannot grow and reproduce. Such drugs work best on cells which are actively growing and dividing, but therein lies the catch. They kill all growing and dividing cells indiscriminately, including the healthy tissue surrounding a patient’s cancer. Immunotherapy drugs, on the other hand, inhibit the proteins on cancer cells which prevent attack, thereby allowing the body’s own immune system to kill off the cancer without harming healthy surrounding tissue. Side effects from using immunotherapy drugs are naturally much less severe, making this new treatment promising for thousands of mesothelioma patients.
A SMART Approach
An institute in Seattle, Washington, became the first cancer center in the United States to adopt a new protocol for treatment of mesothelioma called “surgery for mesothelioma after radiation therapy” or SMART. Instead of performing surgery first to extract as much of the tumor as possible and then using low-dose radiation following surgery to try to kill what’s left, the SMART approach uses a high dose of radiation before a type of surgery called extrapleural pneumonectomy. The patient’s diseased lung is then removed entirely.
The measure of radiation given to the lung in this procedure is so intense that it can kill the patient if the lung is not removed afterward. But by using such a high dose, the chance of random cancer cells migrating during surgery to take root elsewhere in the chest cavity is greatly diminished. In fact, mesothelioma patients who received this treatment at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, where the procedure originated, more than doubled their three-year survival rate.
In fiscal year 2009, Congress charged the Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program (PRCRP) with financing cancer research to support members of the military, their families and the American public. The PRCRP program was started because so many servicemen and women develop cancer as a result of the risky environments and hazardous materials, such as asbestos, to which they are exposed during service to our country. Since that time the PRCRP has made it its mission to fund high-impact research. In 2015, the Department of Defense doubled its award to the PRCRP, providing $50 million to the program to help veterans who have been diagnosed with asbestos cancers such as mesothelioma.
This funding will support studies designed to improve treatment options for asbestos disease, which is diagnosed in an estimated 1,000 military personnel every year in the United States. Since 2011, the PRCRP has funded several major research projects from which mesothelioma patients stand to benefit, a remarkable commitment of money and science from our federal government.
Thoracic surgeon Joseph Friedberg wasn’t content to establish a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the 1990s that was headed by acclaimed mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker. Nor was he satisfied with running a successful mesothelioma program, considered one of the best in the world, at the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where he was able to increase survival rates through his pioneering research on photodynamic therapy for mesothelioma patients. In 2015 the esteemed physician became thoracic Surgeon-in-Chief at the Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
Together with Dr. Richard Alexander, who specializes in peritoneal mesothelioma, Dr. Friedberg now heads a multidisciplinary program at Maryland School of Medicine with a focus on improving the quality of life for mesothelioma patients, for whom symptoms can be particularly harrowing because the cancer is so aggressive. “We intend to make this the most comprehensive program in the country for mesothelioma,” says Dr. Friedberg.
Heat It Up
Our military veterans comprise an estimated 30 percent of all new mesothelioma cases identified in the United States each year, yet the Veterans Affairs Office has been reluctant to provide service members with the same cutting-edge technology in cancer treatments available to mesothelioma patients in the private sector. But starting in 2015, mesothelioma specialists working at VA health care centers in Los Angeles and Boston began offering an innovative treatment for peritoneal mesothelioma called intraoperative heated chemotherapy (HIPEC), a procedure in which highly concentrated, heated chemotherapy treatment is delivered directly to the abdomen during surgery.
Unlike systemic chemotherapy which circulates the drugs throughout the body, HIPEC sends chemotherapy directly to cancer cells in the abdomen. Higher doses than normal are administered and the solution is heated, which is thought to improve the absorption of chemotherapy drugs by tumors and destroy microscopic cancer cells that remain in the abdomen after surgery.
Such positive developments in 2015 bode well for the clients of Baron & Budd and other mesothelioma patients around the country. Our mesothelioma lawyers are thrilled that increased attention is being paid by the medical community and Congress to this rare but devastating disease.