Accounting for around 1% of cancers in the UK each year, mesothelioma is considered a relatively rare but aggressive form of cancer. Typically 7 people die from the condition every day in the UK. However Devon and Cornwall has seen a higher percentage of asbestos related deaths than the national average, mainly due to its strong industrial links and history of ship building.
Mesothelioma is almost always caused by past exposure to asbestos. It develops in the mesothelium, the delicate layers of cells that wrap around most of our internal organs. The majority of cases develop in the chest, known as pleural mesothelioma, but some can occur in other organs, such as the abdomen, known as peritoneal mesothelioma or more rarely around the heart or testicles.
At present the outlook for survival is poor, with only 5 in 100 men surviving for 5 years or more and around 10 in 100 women. Often the disease is diagnosed late, because symptoms in the early stages of the disease, such as tiredness and coughing, may be overlooked. However there has also been a lack of effective treatments.
Mesothelioma research may not have attracted the funding of more prevalent forms of cancer in the past but that is changing. In recent years scientists have been studying the disease so they can better understand its biology. In doing so they hope to produce targeted treatments. Clinical trials are a source of revived hope for mesothelioma patients. Some of the most encouraging clinical trials are those currently testing immunotherapy treatments. Immunotherapy treatments use drugs to stimulate the patient’s own immune system to kill mesothelioma cells. As these treatments are targeted to the cancer cells they do less damage to healthy cells than traditional treatments like chemotherapy and offer fewer side effects for patients.
One of the immunotherapy drugs which has shown promise in trials is Keytruda or Pembrolizumab. This is a second line treatment, used when chemotherapy has been exhausted. It is not a miracle cure and nor is it suitable for all patients but it has shown promise. It is an experimental therapy and only in the early stages of clinical trials to determine whether it is a potentially effective treatment for mesothelioma, although in one study Pembrolizumab was able to shrink tumors in 14 out of 25 mesothelioma patients. While it was approved for use in England in September 2015 by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Pembrolizumab treatment for mesothelioma patients is not currently available on the NHS and so it must be funded privately. Unfortunately it is very expensive, with treatment costing tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, and that unfortunately puts it out of reach of many sufferers. However, for those patients pursuing a personal injury claim due to asbestos exposure, it may be possible to seek the costs of the treatment to be included in the amount of compensation payable. If medical evidence supports eligibility for treatment then the costs can be claimed for as long as the treatment is shown to be effective.
With this, and other potential treatments being tested, the future certainly looks brighter for mesothelioma sufferers than it has done for many years. Funding these treatments may continue to be an issue, both in development and subsequently given the NHS’s lack of resources, but we, and others, will continue to work with doctors to ensure Claimants have a fair deal and are able access treatments which may otherwise be out of their reach.
If you would like advice or guidance on an asbestos related issue contact our dedicated Asbestos team on 01752 292362.