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Study points to link between virus and mesothelioma

November 12th, 2006

A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that there may be a link between mesothelioma and a virus once found in contaminated polio vaccines. Dr. Michele Carbone says that patients who are infected with the virus SV40 may have a greater risk of receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis than the average person. He says that by studying the link between the two diseases, scientists may be able to create more effective mesothelioma treatments.

Dr. Carbone’s research team administered SV40 and asbestos to cultures of human mesothelial cells and to live hamsters to study the effects of the virus on patients who have been exposed to asbestos. The team found that when SV40 was present, low amounts of asbestos—so low that they were thought insufficient to produce mesothelioma symptoms—could cause patients to develop the disease.

Dr. Carbone believes that many people were exposed to SV40—a virus usually found in monkeys—from contaminated polio vaccines that were produced between 1954 and 1961. The vaccines were manufactured using monkey cells, and this caused some to be contaminated with SV40. In another study, Dr. Carbone found that some polio vaccines produced in the Soviet Union as late as 1978 were also contaminated with SV40. This means that millions of patients who received polio vaccines before that time may have been at an increased susceptibility for developing mesothelioma symptoms, even from a low level of asbestos exposure.

This link between SV40 and mesothelioma may help to explain why some patients who are exposed to asbestos receive a mesothelioma diagnosis while others do not, Dr. Carbone says. If this link were better understood, he says, scientists may be able to develop drugs that specifically target SV40 in order to more effectively treat patients who develop mesothelioma symptoms. These mesothelioma treatments may even help to identify patients who are at risk before their symptoms become too severe to manage. “By the time symptoms bring you to the doctor—pain and trouble breathing—the cancer is advanced,” Dr. Carbone says. “We need to be able to detect it before the patient is sick.”

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