A paper published yesterday in Nature Genetics may offer some hopeful new insights into the treatment of malignant pleural mesothelioma. Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Genentech in San Francisco spearheaded an international study that analyzed genetic mutations in 216 mesothelioma tumors. Researchers found patterns among the mutations that will open up entirely new and previously unconsidered options for treating the disease.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The disease most often affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen and takes around 3,200 American lives every year. On a global level, the casualty count soars to 43,000.

A State of the Art Medical Field May Hold the Key to Understanding Cancer

Lead author of the study and chief of Brigham and Women’s Thoracic Surgery division, Dr. Raphael Bueno explained that the study uncovered a “spectrum” of mutation patterns among mesothelioma tumors. Altogether, researchers identified 2,500 genetic alterations that will provide a tremendous amount of helpful information for future studies. “A small number of these mutations have been found previously in other cancers, and drugs have been developed to target these mutations,” Dr. Bueno told the press, “no one knew before now that these mutations might also be found in mesothelioma tumors.”

The discovery of these mutations is important for a few reasons: perhaps most excitingly, it means that there are already drugs on the market that could be especially effective at treating mesothelioma for certain patients. The new findings may also help doctors offer more accurate diagnoses of mesothelioma (which can be critical for finding treatment options later on), as well as offer more accurate predictions about patients’ long-term survival rates.

On a broader scale, this discovery is a great testament to the field of genomic analysis. Genomic analysis is a state-of-the-art field where medical researchers study the DNA of cancer patients to understand the cellular mutations and genetic anomalies that allow cancer to develop in the first place. Recently, scientists used genomic analysis to discover that pancreatic cancer is not a single disease, but a cluster of 4 different diseases, each of which has their own, specific treatment options.

Discoveries such as these are revolutionary because they increase the medical community’s understanding of cancer overall and, as a result, open up new avenues for treatment. If scientists were able to make a similar breakthrough with mesothelioma, tens of thousands of lives could be saved or prolonged every year.

Small Steps Now Could Mean Big Medical Advances Later

Dr. Bueno sounds confident that his team’s discovery will save lives down the road. Mesothelioma has historically been difficult to research because it is rare and many patients don’t live much longer than 5 years after being diagnosed. While not every mesothelioma victim will display the same mutations, identifying just a few will save lives. “Even for a mutation that happens one to two percent of the time, it could mean the difference between life and death for a patient,” Bueno said.

Genomic analysis, and especially the study of mutations in mesothelioma tumors, is a relatively new field. Some of the brightest doctors in the world are confident that even these first, small steps will save lives, so it stands to reason that future developments will only bring increasingly hopeful outlooks for mesothelioma patients.