One of the dangers of asbestos-related diseases, such as malignant mesothelioma, is that you may not know you’re sick until you develop symptoms. This process can take between 20 and 50 years, and by the time you notice problems, most treatment options are limited to palliative care.
The long latency periods of these diseases mean that many patients are advanced in age. Scientists think this may be a problem because the cells of the immune system behave differently as people age, and this may not be helpful in cases of cancer.
But what if scientists could somehow reverse the aging process of these immune cells? Researchers from Australia may have succeeded in doing that very thing.
How does the immune system work?
Your immune system is quite a powerful weapon, designed to protect your body from bacteria, fungi and viruses. These cells are also tasked to scavenge and clean up injured or damaged cells, including cancerous cells. Experts say that if the immune system turned against us, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
So how exactly does the immune system work? There are two main types of cells:
- Phagocytes are cells that “eat” potentially harmful matter, such as pathogens and damaged cells. Granulocytes, dendritic cells and macrophages are all considered phagocytes. Macrophages in particular are known for eating larger matter
- Lymphocytes are white blood cells that “learn” to recognize different types of harmful cells so they can attack them more effectively. They can identify viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. B-cells and T-cells are both considered varieties of lymphocytes.
The different parts of the immune system usually work together. For example, macrophages not only eat harmful matter, but they also put the other cells of the immune system on alert in case there’s some type of infection.
Researchers make old cells young
Researchers from Australia’s Curtin University theorize that cancer is particularly prevalent among older individuals because their macrophages become less active, and therefore cannot help the immune system kill off malignant cells. They say this may be especially true of mesothelioma and lung cancer.
This concept also led them to explore what would happen if they could make the macrophages of older individuals act like those of younger subjects. For their experiment, they looked at young and old mice, both groups of which were initially healthy. After the scientists exposed them to mesothelioma cells, they noticed the immune systems of the older mice were more sluggish to respond. However, after the researchers treated them with a certain drug, the macrophages of the older mice became active and helpful again.
Scientist Connie Jackaman had this to say to Science Network in Western Australia:
“Immune dysfunction is not permanent and in fact can be restored to function similarly to a young immune system. The public may be interested to know that as they get older it is not necessarily all downhill. The next step for our research group is to see if we can target macrophages in a live model and induce tumor regression in elderly immune systems.”
In the U.S., more than 7,300 individuals die every year because of malignant mesothelioma or asbestos-induced lung cancer. The long latency periods of asbestos-induced diseases mean that their incidence probably won’t peak for another 10 years or so. This is true for the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.
These trends are what motivate scientists in their search for a cure for asbestos-related diseases, and they’re what motivates us at Kazan Law to keep fighting for our clients.