Cells under microscope

Asbestos and us

Read Professor Sir Anthony Newman Taylor's blog on 'The Asbestos Story: a tale of public health and politics'.

What is Mesothelioma?

NCMR Deputy Director Prof Miriam Moffatt on the causes of the disease and its occurrence in the UK.
Information for patientsRead more on this disease

Mesothelioma is a cancer that most commonly affects the linings of the lung (pleural mesothelioma), and in rarer cases the linings of the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma). It is caused in the great majority of cases by past asbestos exposure. The cancer is aggressive, often producing great pain in the chest wall. It responds poorly to all therapies, including surgery, and the average survival from diagnosis is less than a year.

The scale of the problem

The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world. This aggressive form of cancer results in 2,500 deaths a year in the UK, and it is estimated that there will be 50,000 to 60,000 new cases by 2050. Mesothelioma is so prevalent in the UK in part due to the use of asbestos not being reduced earlier and our legacy of a large shipbuilding industry. In many cases, spouses and children of those exposed to asbestos have developed cancer through the transfer of fibres on workers’ clothing. Asbestos exposure has put servicemen and women in the armed forces at particular risk. In addition, asbestos exposure has an equally high risk of causing lung cancer, leading to a further 2,500 deaths each year. Lung cancer itself is the major cause of cancer death in the UK.

Why there is cause for optimism

Cancer research is famed for breakthroughs, and many formerly incurable cancers are now treatable. This revolution has arisen because the Human Genome Project has made it possible to find the corrupted (mutated) genes that drive cancer growth, and to study systematically how they alter the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Redressing the balance

In contrast to other cancers, such as those of the breast and prostate, efforts to understand the mutations that drive mesothelioma and lung cancer have until recently been neglected and remain at an early stage. The National Centre for Mesothelioma Research (NCMR) based in the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI) of Imperial College aims to lead discovery research into the underlying mechanisms of mesothelioma and lung cancer, identifying new targets for therapy and new diagnostics for patient stratification.