Researchers have identified a protein that could help in the early detection of a rare but deadly chest cancer caused by asbestos exposure, a study said Wednesday.
The finding, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, could lead to a test for the disease, which is usually detected at a stage when treatments are ineffective and patients only live for another eight months to 18 months.
But the test was unlikely to be available for widespread use until researchers determine if early detection of the tumor, known as pleural mesothelioma, actually leads to improved survival. Such tests are planned.
Currently, only 5 percent of mesotheliomas are spotted early, and even those patients typically die within 34 months.
The results “offer at least a faint glimmer of hope that the fate of future patients with mesothelioma will be better than that of their predecessors,” said Mark Cullen of Yale University in a journal editorial.
Mesothelioma strikes 2,500 to 3,000 people in the United States each year. Most are among the 7.5 million U.S. workers who have been exposed to the asbestos used for fireproofing, insulation and soundproofing.
The research team, led by Harvey Pass of the New York University School of Medicine, found that blood levels of the protein osteopontin were six times higher than normal among people with the tumor.
The protein may also help doctors gauge which patients are at highest risk for the cancer, so they can be followed closely.
Mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lungs and the chest cavity. Pipe fitters, boilermakers, miners, electricians, firefighters, foundry workers, shipbuilders, factory workers and construction workers who use asbestos-laden material are the most vulnerable.