Causes of Mesothelioma
How Exposure to Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a very rare and deadly form of cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed and become embedded in the membranes that line the lungs, heart, and abdominal organs, known as mesothelia. Asbestos exposure may damage DNA and set off a chain of events that results in the development of cancerous cells. These cells, which multiply much more quickly than healthy cells, form tumors.
What Makes Asbestos Dangerous?
The biggest mesothelioma risk factor is exposure to any of the minerals categorized as asbestos. There are five minerals referred to as amphibole asbestos (amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite) and one serpentine form of asbestos (chrysotile). Amosite, or brown asbestos, and crocidolite, or blue asbestos, are considered to have the highest levels of carcinogenic properties.
The amphibole forms of asbestos typically contain high levels of iron and are able to resist acid erosion and high temperatures. As a result, these minerals were once used extensively in industrial furnaces and heating systems. However, the properties that made them ideal for such industrial purposes may also be the reasons these fibrous minerals are so dangerous to humans.
The Science of Mesothelioma Development
Scientific and medical research has proven overwhelmingly that asbestos is the primary cause of mesothelioma. While the process through which these fibers cause tumor formation is still under investigation, scientists have made large strides in the past few years. Here are some of the key points researchers have noted about the carcinogenic properties of asbestos.
Cell Injury via Asbestos Exposure
- Inhaled asbestos fibers may remain in the body indefinitely. While all can be harmful, the longer and thinner a fiber, the more dangerous, because they cannot be removed from a cell via phagocytosis.
- The inflammatory response to asbestos releases free radicals, molecules that can cause cells to mutate.
- High iron concentrations in asbestos fibers may trigger a ferroptosis: a method of cellular death that can create reactive oxygen species (ROS), or oxygen radicals. Oxygen radicals, like other free radicals, can damage DNA and RNA.
Cell Death & Damage to DNA
- When asbestos damages mesothelial cells, a programmed necrosis response results in the release of a protein known as HMGB1. Paradoxically, while this protein causes some cells to begin the destruction process, it also triggers the creation of a different protein complex that promotes cell survival. Therefore, some cells in the damaged area survive, likely with mutations that they will continue to accumulate as they replicate. These DNA errors make a patient more likely to develop cancer as a response to carcinogens.
- Surviving cells have higher levels of HMGB1, which can promote tumor formation. The protein may be secreted outside of a cell, where it can then affect others.
- Other cells may undergo chromothripsis—where a chromosome is “shattered” and then reassembles itself incorrectly, often deleting some of its DNA altogether. In some cases, the process affects genes that moderate cell growth; these changes can lead to out-of-control replication and the formation of tumors.
- In some cases, chromothripsis will result in the deletion of the DNA that holds the code for tumor suppression proteins. Studies of pleural mesothelioma samples show around 80% are missing these proteins.
Other Genetic Factors
- In some cases, parents can pass down susceptibility to mesothelioma (and other cancers) if the BAP1 gene is damaged in germline DNA. BAP1 codes for the BAP1 protein, which helps with DNA repair and has tumor suppression functions.
Understanding the changes asbestos causes at the cellular level is an important step in improving mesothelioma therapies. Researchers are continuing to learn more about this disease.
This section was updated in September of 2020.
Other Mesothelioma Risk Factors
Asbestos is not the only material that can cause mesothelioma, nor does it cause the cancer in everyone who suffers prolonged exposure. Other factors that could increase someone’s likelihood of developing mesothelioma include:
- Exposure to zeolites, a class of minerals chemically similar to asbestos. These substances are also fibrous and can be dangerous if inhaled.
- Previous radiation treatment targeting the chest or abdomen. If someone has already faced cell damage from asbestos exposure, radiation may cause additional mutations and lead to cancer.
- While smoking likely increases the incidence of lung cancer among people exposed to asbestos, its connection to mesothelioma is less certain. However, smoking can affect treatment by increasing the risk of surgical complications.
- A family history of mesothelioma may signal a germline mutation in BAP1. When this gene is inhibited, asbestos exposure is more likely to cause cancer.
- SV40, or simian virus 40, may be linked with mesothelioma development. This theory is still under review.
Our Team Understands Mesothelioma and the Law
Mesothelioma claims should not be trusted to a general attorney. The scientific knowledge required for your representative, not to mention the background in asbestos regulation and rulings, can only be acquired through years of practice in this area.
At Shrader & Associates, L.L.P., our dedicated mesothelioma attorneys have decades of combined experience working with mesothelioma patients to obtain compensation. We keep current on the subject so we can answer your questions—legal and otherwise—and provide appropriate counsel. Reach out to us at any time if you have questions about filing a mesothelioma claim. We want to help.
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