Doctors are developing the first ever effective treatment for the respiratory disease mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a disease of the lung lining and chest wall contracted from exposure to asbestos. It is responsible for as many deaths as cervical cancer.
The disease has traditionally viewed as untreatable and incurable, but speakers at the British Thoracic Society (BTS) summer meeting in Southampton on Thursday will outline medical and surgical advances that suggest otherwise.
They will highlight recent trials which show that chemotherapy treatment improves the symptoms of mesothelioma, while a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery can produce prolonged survival, if the disease is detected early.
In the preliminary results of a recent study of 19 patients at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, nearly half (47%) of patients with advanced malignant mesothelioma experienced improved respiratory symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath and chest pain after receiving simple out-patient based chemotherapy. There were few side effects.
In a separate study the life expectancy of 31 patients who underwent a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery was extended by two to five years.
Surgery involves the removal of the whole of the affected lung and the membranes surrounding it. Doctors may also need to remove the membranes surrounding the heart, and the diaphragm, the muscle associated with breathing.
21st century problem
Dr Robin Rudd, BTS member and lung specialist from St Bartholomew's Hospital and the London Chest Hospital, said: "Despite much stricter regulations on asbestos use, mesothelioma will still be contracted into the new century as a result of its long latency period.
"This emphasises the importance of developing effective treatment and recent developments suggest that we are beginning to make progress."
Mesothelioma is most common in men born in the 1940s, who worked in construction and building maintenance.
It is predicted to be the cause of one per cent of all deaths of men in this group by the year 2020.
In 1996 there were 1,301 deaths from mesothelioma in the UK.
The disease can take up to 35 years to develop from the point that asbestos is first breathed in.
The asbestos fibres irritate the tissues of the lung and cause inflammation which eventually leads to the development of malignant tumours.
Death usually occurs 12-18 months after the first onset of symptoms.
The supply, marketing and use of brown and blue asbestos - the most potent forms of asbestos - were banned in 1985 under The Asbestos Prohibition Regulations.
The Health and Safety Executive recently amended the regulations regarding working with asbestos to increase the protection for people still working with the material.