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Hope and Medical Reality

Friedrich Nietzsche once cynically wrote, “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” For victims of mesothelioma and their families, the dismal prognosis of this disease and the search for answers often takes them beyond the bounds of conventional medicine. All too often, they find themselves victimized again. Motivated by greed, we’ve seen unscrupulous lawyers as well as pharmaceutical companies resort to misinformation and downright fraud. Too often the media falls into the same trap, relying solely on press releases from pharmaceutical companies for information.

A recent article in a British paper with the headline “Asbestos Cancer Destroyer” stated:

Scientists have safely tested a potential vaccine they hope can beat a deadly cancer linked to asbestos. The development has been described as the most significant breakthrough in the battle against Clydeside’s death dust ticking timebomb. Research leader Dr. Joachim Aerts said: “We hope it will be possible to increase survival in patients with mesothelioma and to eventually vaccinate people who have been in contact with asbestos.” The news has been greeted with enthusiasm in Clydebank where thousands of workers were exposed to asbestos in places such as John Brown’s shipyard and Turner & Newall’s Dalmuir asbestos factory. The town is the worst affected area in the UK for mesothelioma deaths. The cancer is extremely difficult to treat and often proves fatal in a very short time-scale. Bob Dickie, of Clydebank Asbestos Group, which has more than 1,400 members, said: “If this becomes a reality, it would be a tremendous step forward in the treatment of mesothelioma. If these experiments prove to be successful then it would be wonderful for people who suffer from this terrible disease.” Ten patients with advanced mesothelioma were given the new treatment – being called a vaccine – and all showed signs of recovery.

It sounds promising. Even hopeful, perhaps. But the truth is much less promising. for the real information is found in the February 18, 2010 article titled Consolidative Dendritic Cell-Based Immunotherapy Elicits Cytotoxicity Against Malignant Mesothelioma published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which is much more circumspect. The median survival of those participating in this study was 19 months (range, 11-34 months), with only one patient currently alive. Hardly an “Asbestos Cancer Destroyer.” The potential vaccine, which infuses a patient’s own dendritic cells with antigens from the patient’s tumor, was able to induce a T-cell response against mesothelioma tumors. Three patients showed partial responses after receiving immunotherapy, one had stable disease, and six patients had no response. While the ten person study has demonstrated that this therapy is capable of inducing an immunological response to tumor cells in a small percentage of patients, a potential vaccine is at best years away.

Research is important, and ongoing efforts to find ways to treat and someday cure mesothelioma are to be applauded and supported. Indeed, that’s why we devote our own time and money to the effort. But over-promoting very preliminary results can only create false hopes and lead to disappointment amongst current patients and their families.

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