Mesothelioma is a specific type of cancer, typically occurring in the lungs or abdomen. The disease has a low survival rate, as it is incurable by any known technologies. Conventional treatments have made little difference in survival rates of mesothelioma patients. After being diagnosed with the disease, it is not typical for a patient to live for more than a year. However, a new treatment on the horizon might be able to change that.
Surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania used a new procedure on 38 mesothelioma patients, and 27 of those patients survived for longer than two years after their initial diagnosis. In addition, four patients survived for more than five years. While the findings are preliminary, the results seem to suggest that good news may be around the corner for patients battling mesothelioma and their families.
The new procedure, called “radical pleurectomy/decortications (P/D)” surgery, is less invasive than more conventional techniques in that it is “lung-sparing,” or doesn’t involve making incisions through the walls of the lungs. Instead, it employs a combination of chemotherapy (cancer-fighting drugs) and laser light therapy. The procedure is able to keep the structural integrity of the lungs intact, which is believed by some to be at the root of the extended life expectancy of patients who undergo the procedure. Some patients have been able to resume normal activity within a short time after the surgery.
One drawback of the procedure is that it is significantly more time-consuming than the currently-accepted “extrapleural pneumonectomy,” which consists of five steps and can be completed in approximately three hours. The Penn University surgeons found that the new procedure required as much as 10 to 14 hours of operating time. However, the long operating procedure appears to have merit; in the few cases so far, it has not only increased survival rates, but also quality of life for patients. An article in the Annals of Thoractic Surgery concludes that “the results of this lung-sparing approach are safe, encouraging, and warrant further investigation.”
Conventional cancer therapies have historically demonstrated very limited effectiveness against mesothelioma, only extending the lives of patients by a matter of weeks. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which can be highly effective at combating other types of cancers, have shown marginal results at best when used on mesothelioma patients. For this reason, the prospect of a new type of specialized therapy is particularly uplifting to those who have had little hope until now.
The University of Pennsylvania team plans to continue developing and refining the procedure. It is possible that operating time may be reduced, which might make the procedure economically feasible for a greater number of patients. Joseph Friedberg, the lead surgeon on the team, says that he ultimately hopes to extend mesothelioma patients’ lives by at least ten years.