Asbestos causes different cancers, but how exactly this happens isn’t known. But there are well-researched theories that link these fibers, how they interact with cells, and how those cells and the body’s immune system respond. Cancer appears to result from a long and complex chain of events that starts with normal cells supporting life and ends with malignant ones draining life away.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a light, strong, durable mineral fiber used in thousands of products over centuries because it’s resistant to heat, fire, chemicals, and electricity. If fibers are airborne, people can inhale or swallow them. Asbestos fibers may never leave the body or be destroyed by its immune response. Over years or decades, these fibers may cause many cancer types, including highly aggressive and lethal mesotheliomas.
What is the Human Immune System?
The immune system protects your body from outside invaders and diseased, mutated, or dying cells. Dangers from the outside could be viruses, bacteria, fungi, and asbestos fibers. This system has different proteins, organs, and cells that work together, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The immune system has two parts: the innate system we’re born with and the adaptive system, which develops as we live and are exposed to different toxins, germs, and bacteria. These two systems work together.
What is Inflammation?
When your body encounters viruses, bacteria, mutated cells, or you’re injured, the immune system sends inflammatory cells and cytokines (which stimulate more inflammatory cells). This inflammatory response traps offending agents or starts healing damaged tissue. This may cause swelling, redness, bruising, and pain, reports the Cleveland Clinic.
There are two kinds of inflammation:
- You suffer sudden bodily harm, like a cut. To heal it, your body sends inflammatory cells to the injury, causing acute inflammation. These cells start the healing process
- If your immune system continues sending inflammatory cells after the danger passes, you have chronic inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis is an example where inflammatory cells and substances attack healthy joint tissues, causing inflammation that can severely damage joints, resulting in pain and deformities
Inflammation is a double-edged immune response sword. A little may be good, but a lot may be very harmful.
Is There a Connection Between Inflammation and Cancer?
German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, in 1863, observed white blood cells (part of the immune response) in cancerous tissues and came up with a new idea about how cancer starts. Some tumors, he proposed, may start where there’s chronic inflammation, reports the National Cancer Institute.
His proposal has withstood the test of time. Chronic inflammation in certain body parts, including where asbestos fibers are lodged, may increase cancer risk. Inflammation is now considered a hallmark of cancer. Researchers are studying the possible role inflammation takes in cancer, how it spreads, and what makes tumors treatment-resistant.
The inflammatory process starts when damaged tissues release chemicals, white blood cells travel to the area, and emit substances that cause cells to divide and grow to begin the recovery process. The inflammation should end when the injury heals.
When inflammation gets out of control, it may contribute to cancer development and growth. Sometimes, tumors take advantage of this inflammatory environment to exclude tumor-fighting immune cells.
When inflammation does its job, it’s a lifesaver. We may have many cancer cells and budding tumors in our bodies, but they don’t become a problem if a healthy immune system kills them or at least limits their growth.
Researchers look at inflammation as a way to kill cancer cells, while others are testing how drugs reducing inflammation may do the same (especially in situations where inflammation keeps cancer-killing immune cells away from a tumor).
In a healthy body, immune cells produce chemicals that may kill viruses or fungi. These reactive oxygen species may also damage the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA, the biological molecule containing instructions an organism needs to survive, develop, and reproduce) of normal cells, which increases the risk of mutations that could lead to cancer.
Timing may be the difference between healthy healing and the creation of cancer tumors. Usually, the production of cells to replace injured or defective tissue is delayed until these reactive chemicals are no longer present. This reduces the risk replacement cells will suffer DNA damage, which may include mutations that cause tumor creation.
During chronic inflammation, this timing is off. Reactive chemicals and new cells that are supposed to repair injured tissue can be present at the same time. This may boost the risk of developing cancer.
How Would This Work With Asbestos-Related Cancers?
A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences laid out a theory of how asbestos and inflammation can result in tumor formation.
Asbestos fibers kill cells, and a dead cell shouldn’t lead to creating a malignant tumor. The problem may arise in how the cells are destroyed. When an asbestos fiber kills a human cell, it starts “programmed cell necrosis.” That causes the release of the high-mobility group box 1 protein (HMGB1).
HMGB1 starts an inflammatory reaction that causes mutagens (substances that can cause cells to mutate) and chemicals that promote tumor growth. Researchers found that asbestos-exposed patients have higher levels of HMGB1 in their bodies.
They propose that one way to slow down, if not eliminate, asbestos-caused cancer would be to interfere with HMGB1, which should limit the inflammatory reaction, decreasing cancer incidence and tumor growth.
Another study about inflammation and mesothelioma published two years later stated, “There is consistent evidence to suggest an association between a systemic inflammatory response…and poorer prognosis.”
A study published this year stated, “A chronic inflammatory state is the essential element characterizing the (creation of pleural mesothelioma). The picture is exceptionally complex, with numerous cellular and environmental interactions building a unique tumor microenvironment (TME) supporting malignant mesothelial cell transformation and proliferation.”
The start of mesothelioma is associated with asbestos exposure, according to the study, and the activation of immune system cells in the surrounding tissue. This leads to oxidative stress, which can lead to mutations and the release of chemicals that result in inflammation, causing a runaway chain of molecular events that result in mesothelioma tumors.
You don’t want too much of a good thing. Our immune systems can kill cancer cells, but too much of an immune response, which causes chronic inflammation, can create a cellular environment where mesothelioma cells develop and spread. “Consistently, the over-activation of the immune system is correlated with worse patient outcomes and poor responses to treatment.”
Call Us Today for A Free Consultation
Satterley & Kelley, PLLC attorneys are your boots on the ground if you or someone you love suffers from mesothelioma or an asbestos-related illness in Kentucky. To discuss possible compensation for the harm you suffer and legal claims against those responsible, reach our office in Louisville by calling us at 855-385-9532. You may also complete our contact form for a free initial consultation.