The Year in Mesothelioma: One Step Forward, One Step Back
Emily Walsh

The Year in Mesothelioma: One Step Forward, One Step Back

On the mesothelioma front: the impact of artificial intelligence on cancer and a weakening of asbestos regulations

The world of healthcare and disease is constantly evolving and advancing. Some diseases, like polio, have been nearly eradicated thanks to concentrated efforts and successful treatments, while others, like cancer, still resist preventative treatments.

Mesothelioma cancer, which affects the linings of internal organs, is one of these diseases. The mesothelioma landscape has shifted in good ways and bad ways in the past year, and still remains a public health concern that should be addressed.

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, making the ban of this mineral imperative if we are ever to eradicate the disease. Inhalation or ingestion of asbestos, a natural mineral, can cause inflammation in the lungs, heart and abdomen and lead to mesothelioma.

The mesothelioma space has been active this year. From some positive advances in oncology, to the EPA’s confusing Significant New Use Rule, there’s a lot to be aware of as Mesothelioma Awareness Day approaches.

Artificial Intelligence

For all types of cancer, the incredible strides of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are an exciting development. Research teams all over the world are finding new ways to apply machine learning and AI to save lives.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. As programmers become more acquainted with building these machines, the possibilities of AI application are growing well beyond what we could have ever expected.

In cancer diagnosis and detection, machines can excel. The name of the game is data, and the field of oncology has a lot of it. From patterns in previous diagnoses and treatments, to successful tailored treatments in precision medicine, to understanding cancer type variations, there are endless variables to consider in the world of AI. The human mind simply can’t process at the same rate as our machine counterparts.

The processing power of AI means that machines are quickly becoming just as accurate, or more, at diagnosing skin cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer. At their best, these programs can cut down on false positives, overlooked diagnoses, and human judgment errors, all while cataloging success rates to continue machine learning. The more AI is used in these fields, the more accurate it becomes.

For cancers like mesothelioma, which are difficult to diagnose due to a latency period of up to 50 years, AI could be a game changer. A Scottish research lab was just awarded £140,000 to develop ways to apply AI to malignant pleural mesothelioma. The potential for AI to reduce diagnosis time, catch the disease earlier, and lengthen life expectancy rates is huge.

Dr. Jack Kreindler, founder of the Centre for Health and Human Performance told Forbes that AI’s usage could prove to be a game changer in oncology.

“I would sooner today trust computer scientists and data scientists to tell me how to treat a really complex system like cancer than my fellow oncologists,” Kreindler said. “I would not have said that two to three years ago.”

Regulatory changes

While there are encouraging notes on the research front, there some worrisome developments on the regulatory front. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) on asbestos manufacturing. This rule allows manufacturers to submit proposals for new uses of asbestos, to be reviewed individually by the EPA.

The rule was announced in August by the EPA because, “the Agency has found no information indicating that the following uses are ongoing, and therefore, the following uses are subject to this proposed SNUR,” and then listed several usages that were regulated under the Toxic Substance Control Act.

The introduction of this SNUR could allow older, inactive uses of asbestos back into production. As well as these more legacy uses, it introduces a way for new uses of the mineral to be evaluated and approved.

Allowing asbestos manufacturing this sort of loophole, even if each case will be reviewed by the EPA, represents, we feel, a step in the wrong direction for asbestos regulation.

The history of asbestos has never been straightforward, every time it seems like the field takes one step forward, something else brings it two steps back. The EPA’s original Asbestos Ban and Phase Out rule in 1989 that was later overturned in 1991, and conflicting international views on how the mineral should be used and regulated are just two historical examples. This year has been an eventful one for asbestos and mesothelioma, and perhaps this is just what the public needs to see in order to get this issue taken care of once and for all.

September 26th is Mesothelioma Awareness Day (MAD), a day aimed at raising awareness of the disease and its main cause, the dangerous mineral asbestos. MAD was established in 2004 by volunteers at the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation to bring focus and funding to the research, treatment, and prevention of the disease.