Leading a medical breakthrough

Anthony George

UTS research offers hope in the fight against incurable asbestos-related disease

Life-changing research is happening at UTS’s ithree institute: Associate Professor Anthony George and his team have discovered a compound they believe could help treat people diagnosed with mesothelioma and asbestosis - incurable lung diseases caused by asbestos exposure.

"We think the compound could be used through a puffer or a nebuliser, just like those used with asthma."

The potential impact on Australian health is considerable. The country has the world’s second highest rate of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lung. Asbestos fibres inflame the lung’s lining and later develop into tumours in its deeper layer; symptoms can take 20-50 years to develop. Asbestosis is a scarring of lung tissue that leads to long-term breathing complications. Initially contracted by those in the mining and manufacturing industries, the diseases are now a threat to DIY home renovators. According to Safe Work Australia figures, approximately 700 lives are claimed annually.

Treatment is expected to be simply delivered. “We think the compound could be used through a puffer or a nebuliser, just like those used with asthma,” Associate Professor George explains. “It could either prevent the fibres taking hold in people exposed to asbestos, or improve the condition for people suffering now.”

Compound effects

Asbestos exposure typically suppresses a person’s immune system to fight back. The compound enables the body’s defence system to act against asbestos fibres lodged in the lung.

Associate Professor George says the compound stops the pathways to cell death caused by asbestos at a genetic level. The results look promising: mesothelioma tumour development was halted in 60-80 per cent of cases during pre-clinical laboratory trials on mice. In experiments on human lung cell cultures, the compound was effective in preventing symptoms typically triggered by asbestos, such as a rise in harmful oxygen radical levels.

Impending commercialisation

The research project began in 2007 and garnered a Trailblazer Award and major funding from an anonymous donor the following year. While progression from discovery to cure can take decades in medicine, an application for a patent for the compound has been submitted. Encouragingly, by working with SPARK Sydney — a joint program between UTS and the Kolling Institute of Medical Research — Associate Professor George could see a product emerge in just five years.

SPARK Sydney Director Professor Michael Wallach is enthusiastic. “We selected Dr George’s project because it satisfies an important, unmet need,” he says. “In two years, with our support and mentoring, he should be able to get to a proof of concept that will be taken up by a pharmaceutical company.”

A much-needed breakthrough

"People who are diagnosed with these diseases need to have something that gives them hope."

For mesothelioma sufferers, Associate Professor George believes the compound will have considerable life-extending potential as a complement to chemotherapy. Life expectancy is currently about nine months after diagnosis, with intense chemotherapy extending the duration for only three months on average.

Living with the knowledge of asbestos exposure can be fraught with stress and uncertainty. New ways to fight mesothelioma are essential for the future, says asbestos compensation lawyer Theodora Ahilas. “People who are diagnosed with these diseases need to have something that gives them hope. They need to know that there is some treatment which will give them a longer life expectancy and some quality of life.”