Ohio State University scientists are hoping to discover how asbestos fibers form cancer in human cells. Although clinical applications for the research are years away, researchers hope their work will aid in new treatments and drug developments that ultimately increase the number of mesothelioma survivors.

The OSU research involves the use of atomic force microscopy, which will allow researchers to observe what happens after asbestos exposure on a molecular level. In particular, researchers hope to be able to see how a single asbestos fiber binds with a receptor protein on a cell’s surface. Eric Taylor, a doctoral candidate in earth science at Ohio State, explains that they are “looking at what molecules are involved in a chain of events when the fiber touches the cell. Does the binding occur over minutes or hours and what processes are triggered?”

The study will begin with a focus on blue asbestos, a once-common form of asbestos used in ceiling tiles and insulation that was banned from most of the US in 1980, but is still a risk to many people today. Scientists hope to then continue their studies on all six forms of asbestos fibers. The first protein to be studied will be the epidermal growth factor receptor. This receptor is present on the surface of every human cell.

Understanding the intricacies of the binding process between asbestos minerals and proteins might help researchers figure out how to prevent or even undo the interaction which currently causes serious asbestos-related illnesses. The conditions commonly associated with asbestos exposure include lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a largely terminal cancer that forms in the membrane lining of the lungs or stomach.

Although the motivation for this project is to find a way to intervene and prevent asbestos-related disease after asbestos exposure, we are hopeful that this research will open the door for new treatment options and possibly a cure or key to remission for mesothelioma patients.