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Advanced imaging techniques reveal lung response to asbestos

Researchers in Italy, using soft X-ray imaging and fluorescence microscopy, have gotten a closer look at how human lung tissue responds to the presence of asbestos fibers.


The research, published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicity, has revealed “the location, distribution and elemental composition of asbestos bodies and associated nanometric structures.”


The new techniques have uncovered what the researchers call a “distinct fingerprint” for the core asbestos fiber. The asbestos body consists of the core, surrounded by a golden-brown coat containing iron-rich proteins such as ferritin and hemosiderin. It is believed that asbestos bodies form as a protective mechanism to diminish the toxicity of asbestos fibers, which contain transition metals that are thought to explain asbestos’ toxic and carcinogenic effects.


In one key finding, the research team now says there is “clear evidence” that magnesium may play a bigger role than previously known in the formation of asbestos bodies. The new research shows that the highest content of silicon was found close to the fiber itself, while the outer edges of asbestos bodies tend to contain high amounts of magnesium. Enhanced magnesium content is a feature of certain cancers, including mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure.


“This is the first important step to further thorough investigations that will shed light on the physiopathological role of magnesium in tissue response to the asbestos toxicity,” the researchers said.


The study marks the first time synchrotron X-ray microscopies have been used to study the molecular mechanism of asbestos toxicity, opening the door for future research into how asbestos causes mesothelioma.


Despite more than 50 years of study, the pathogenesis of asbestos-related diseases — how they begin and develop — is still unclear. Various techniques, such as optical and electron microscopies, have been used to “unravel the chemical and molecular mechanisms of asbestos toxicity,” but each of them has “certain limitations,” preventing the development treatments, the researchers said.