Right now, it is possible to conduct genetic testing to determine whether a person is at a heightened vulnerability for breast, colon, and potentially lung cancer. Recently, the genetic mutation behind mesothelioma was also discovered. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer that kills up to 3,000 Americans every year, most within 6 months of diagnosis.
Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, a naturally-occuring fibrous material that can be inhaled into the lungs. According to the National Institutes of Health, between 1940 and 1978, 11 million people were exposed to asbestos. Still, experts state, mesothelioma cases probably won’t peak until 2020, as it can take from 25 to 50 years for the disease to show enough symptoms to be diagnosed.
For years, scientists have wondered why only a select few people are diagnosed with mesothelioma, when asbestos exposure has been so widespread. Scientists at the National Institute of Health, however, may have just identified a gene that, if mutated, may predispose people to melanoma of the eye and mesothelioma.
The study evaluated two American families that have a high incidence of mesothelioma and other cancers. According to study results, each family member who was diagnosed with mesothelioma or melanoma of the eye had mutations in a gene called BAP1. One-quarter of another 26 mesothelioma patients who had no family history of the disease also had this mutation.
Some of the same patients who were diagnosed with mesothelioma or melanoma of the eye were also diagnosed with renal, breast, ovarian, or pancreatic cancer. This leads scientists to conclude that BAP1 gene mutations may lead to a number of types of cancer. This gene is responsible for repairing DNA damage and suppressing tumor activity, so it follows that a mutation to this gene can lead to a higher likelihood of cancer.
Some genetic mutations are inherited, but more of them are likely the result of random mutations in healthy cells. For cancer to actually develop, different genes that lead to out-of-control cell growth and spread must also mutate. Exposure to carcinogenic substances like asbestos can cause these random mutations.
Recently, the federal government announced a health warning to workers on road projects or in gravel pits in 12 western states where erionite has been used. According to recent studies, erionite can be even more potent than asbestos when inhaled.
With the advent of new tools that make DNA sequencing easier and more affordable, more scientists are dedicating time to the study and identification of an increasing number of genetic mutations that have been linked to cancer. The hope is that people who find out that they are predisposed to cancer can more vigilantly avoid potential carcinogenics like asbestos, UV light, and cigarette smoke.