From March 5-7, 2014, distinguished scientists, doctors, community activists, and mesothelioma patients and their loved ones gathered in Washington, D.C. as part of the 2014 International Symposium on Malignant Mesothelioma. The Symposium is sponsored by the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (Meso Foundation), also known as “Cure Meso.org,” a nonprofit organization that seeks to cure mesothelioma through research, education, and activism.

Focus on Immunotherapy for New Mesothelioma Treatments
The first day, scientists attended special sessions on mesothelioma research. Much of the most promising new research is in the area of immunotherapy — stimulating the body’s own immune system to fight disease.

Mesothelioma mortality rates are very high, in part because mesothelioma cells are resistant to many types of treatment. Dr. Ira Pastan of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) gave a keynote speech about his team’s research into new kinds of treatment. Existing drugs do not help all patients, and in many cases these drugs do not help very much in shrinking mesothelioma tumors. Dr. Pastan’s research is focused on finding a way to help these drugs to work with the body’s immune system and be more effective against tumors.

Other scientists also presented their research. These speakers included the winners of the Meso Foundation’s 2014 grants.

Seeking Federal Funding for Mesothelioma Research
As part of the Symposium, an “Advocacy Day” was held for mesothelioma patients, their families, and community activists to visit their Congresspeople on Capitol Hill. Their goals were to educate lawmakers on the disease, and to request increased federal funding for mesothelioma research. According to Dr. H. Richard Alexander of the University of Maryland, the NCI “does not even have mesothelioma on the list” of federal funding for different kinds of cancer research.

Given how deadly mesothelioma is, and its resistance to treatment, Dr. Alexander urged conference attendees to ask their elected officials to have mesothelioma classified as a “recalcitrant cancer,” which can then receive more funding. Recalcitrant cancers are those for which there is no known cure, and for which relative survival rates are less than 50% in a 5-year period. Mesothelioma survival rates are just 5–10%.

“Research cures cancer,” said Dr. Alexander. He cited declining death rates for lung cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer, all of which have benefited enormously from federally funded research. He pointed out that cures for common cancers have often sprung from the research into cures for rare types of cancer — a good reason for Congress to increase funding for mesothelioma research, as well as considering the pain and suffering experienced by victims of the disease.

Highlights of the Symposium
There were poignant moments in between the scientific discoveries and the calls to action on Capitol Hill. Both days featured special community dinners to celebrate the Meso Foundation’s award recipients, and to recognize inspirational members of the mesothelioma community. On Thursday, there was a beautiful tribute ceremony honoring loved ones who had lost their battle with mesothelioma.

The Meso Fighters Band, whose members are all directly affected by mesothelioma, entertained the crowd on the final evening of the symposium to much applause.