While there is no cure for pleural mesothelioma yet, emerging scientific technology and research are creating a way for patients to live longer, healthier lives and to achieve an overall better quality of life and improved prognosis.
Because pleural mesothelioma is so rare, it receives significantly less research funding than other forms of cancer. About 3,000 cases of mesothelioma, including pleural mesothelioma, are diagnosed each year, compared with about 228,000 lung cancer cases annually.
However, researchers and doctors remain optimistic. Advancements in conventional treatment options such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy and in emerging treatments such as immunotherapy and gene therapy have shown signs of increased survival rates for pleural mesothelioma patients. There are also more clinical trials with promising results, creating hope for improved treatment options for patients in the future.
Although there is no cure for pleural mesothelioma, there are treatment options that may improve a patient’s life expectancy, either by a few months or by a few years.
Chemotherapy has improved over the years, and now with better technology and more knowledge, some chemotherapy drugs can directly target cancerous cells while minimizing harmful effects to healthy cells in the body. Chemo is also more precise than in the past and can potentially stop or slow the growth of any cancerous cells left behind after surgery.
Chemotherapy may be most effective when more than one drug is used, such as the combination of Alimta, also known as pemetrexed, and cisplatin. This drug combination is the most common and often the most effective to treat pleural mesothelioma.
Radiation therapy has also improved dramatically in the past few decades. Advances include better precision, dosages personalized for each patient, increased dosage, continuous imaging guidance and improved computer-assisted planning. Radiologists now have the ability to administer more effective and safer radiation doses in a shorter period of time.
Potentially curative surgeries, such as a pleurectomy (removal of the pleura) and an extrapleural pneumonectomy (removal of the lung and pleura), can now remove all visible mesothelioma cancerous cells.
Perhaps the most effective and most improved type of therapy for pleural mesothelioma patients is the multimodal therapy approach. Multimodal therapy is the combination of two or more treatment options to more aggressively treat the cancer. This type of therapy is becoming more popular and has proven successful in many patients.
Pleural mesothelioma specialists are also moving forward with immunotherapy and gene therapy in clinical trials to help improve patients’ prognoses. Immunotherapy uses a patient’s immune system to help fight the mesothelioma cancer cells in the body without harming healthy cells. Gene therapy involves infecting a patient with a virus that has been genetically altered and redesigned to replace the defective copy of the same gene, allowing it to kill cancer cells and slow tumor growth.
To detect pleural mesothelioma in its early stages is difficult, because of the aggressive nature of the cancer and the fact that early symptoms often mimic less severe respiratory conditions, which may lead to an initial misdiagnosis.
Although early diagnosis is difficult, it is the biggest key to an improved prognosis. An early diagnosis can mean more treatment options, including more aggressive and experimental treatments. In addition, treatment is often more effective when mesothelioma is diagnosed in an early stage.
Historically, tissue biopsies and imaging tests were necessary to make a definitive pleural mesothelioma diagnosis, but recent improvements in blood-based biomarkers have shown promising results. Clinical trials are also paving the way for easier early diagnosis using breath and urine samples. Other less invasive diagnostic tests may also help doctors diagnose pleural mesothelioma earlier.
Pleural mesothelioma patients across the country participate in a number of clinical trials that aim to take advantage of new, cutting-edge technology to develop better treatment options and help advance the search for a cure. The next major advancements in mesothelioma treatment will likely come from a clinical trial.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is responsible for the majority of clinical trials available to pleural mesothelioma patients today, but research is taking place all over the country. Not only do major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York spearhead mesothelioma advancements, but specialized centers in New Orleans, Tampa, Houston and Seattle are also making progress.
Since no pleural mesothelioma cure has yet been discovered, clinical trials evaluate experimental treatment options and allow patients to try medications and procedures that have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Anyone interested in clinical trials should speak to their doctor first about their eligibility.
Researchers and specialists across the country will continue their tireless work – mostly through clinical trials – until the day we have a cure for pleural mesothelioma.
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