Rare cancer linked to asbestos exposure, according study by University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center

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Haining Yang, M.D., Ph.D. and Michele Carbone, M.D., Ph.D. from the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center and an international team of researchers found that the HMGB1 protein plays a critical role in the development of asbestos-induced mesothelioma. (Photo courtesy: University of Hawaiʻi.)

An international team of researchers, led by doctors at the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center, conducted a study that showed the HMGB1 protein in asbestos is linked to the development of a rare cancer.

Published in the Sept. 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., the research revealed following asbestos exposure the release of HMGB1 to the human body kick-starts an inflammatory process, which over time promotes mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive type of cancer that primarily affects the thin tissue lining of the chest and abdomen. The illness leads to approximately 3,200 deaths per year in the U.S. 


The study, led by doctors Haining Yang and Michele Carbone at University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center, aimed to identify the primary cell type responsible for HMGB1 production in asbestos exposure. 

To achieve this, researchers created genetically modified mice in which HMGB1 expression is regulated in various cell types and then exposed these mice to asbestos.

During the early phases of mesothelioma development, HMGB1 was released by the mesothelial cells, which form the lining of the abdomen, thorax, and internal organs, and later on by macrophages, which are inflammatory cells. The researchers will now try to target certain molecules in these different cell types at different stages of the disease in mice to prevent or reduce the growth of mesothelioma.


“We are very encouraged by these results, and we hope to develop more effective preventive and therapeutic strategies for those who are at risk of developing mesothelioma because they have been exposed to asbestos,” Yang said.

Asbestos is naturally occurring fibrous minerals that are resistant to heat and corrosion. Because of these properties, it was used in commercial products such as insulation and fireproofing materials, automotive brakes, and wallboard materials.

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