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Aussie team identifies potential new blood marker for pleural mesothelioma

Australian researchers report that identifying small molecules known as microRNAs in the blood of patients with pleural mesothelioma could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of the deadly lung disease.


The lead researcher, Michaela Kirschner from Asbestos Diseases Research at Concord Hospital Campus in Sydney, said the findings suggest a new blood-based marker for detecting mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the outer lining of the lung. Clinicians currently rely on a lung biopsy, an invasive procedure that often does not yield enough tissue for an accurate and timely diagnosis.


“If doctors could use a diagnostic marker based on a simple blood test to help with diagnosis, it could circumvent the problem of availability of tumor tissue and help to accelerate the diagnostic process,” Kirschner said.


Kirschner’s team identified 17 microRNAs that show up in significant amounts in mesothelioma patients compared to healthy control subjects. The level of one particular microRNA — miR-625-3p — was four times higher in the blood of mesothelioma patients. The researchers measured blood levels of miR-625-3p in 28 patients and were able to accurately distinguish mesothelioma from healthy controls more than 82 percent of the time.


Mesothelioma tumors are caused by asbestos exposure and are extremely aggressive. Most patients are not diagnosed until the disease has reached an advanced stage, at which point surgery or chemotherapy will have little effect on a patient’s chances for survival. In an effort to improve outcomes, scientists have been looking for ways to detect mesothelioma early using biomarkers — molecules found in blood or tissues that signal a disease or abnormal biological process.


Biomarkers have been widely used in pre-clinical research to predict, detect and monitor different types of cancer, but few have proved reliable enough for clinical practice. However, genomics and new developments in biotechnology offer hope that biomarkers will one day lead to better, safer treatments tailored to individual patients.


Kirschner cautioned that like other potential blood-based markers for mesothelioma currently under investigation, miR-625-3p is far from 100 percent reliable. She said that while two sample series have shown miR-625-3p “performs as well as any previously proposed protein marker for detecting mesothelioma,” further studies of the molecule are needed.


“Should further studies prove that microRNAs in plasma are accurate enough for the diagnosis of malignant pleural mesothelioma, this will lead to the development of a diagnostic test for routine clinical use,” Dr. Kirschner said. “For a patient this would mean that appropriate treatment could be instituted at an earlier stage.”


The study by Kirschner’s team was one of several promising developments in mesothelioma research presented at the 3rd European Lung Cancer Conference in Geneva.