Asbestos was once a popular building material, but it was discovered that exposure to it causes cancer.
Known as mesothelioma, it’s incredibly deadly, but now a new drug to treat it is being tested on 300 British patients.
This comes as rates of the disease have risen six times since the 1970s, and an average of seven people were diagnosed every day with it in the UK in 2013 alone.
It’s hoped this new method treatment – already used for some other types of cancerous tumour – will harness the body’s own immune system to overcome it.
The drug, nivolumab, is already effective for treating melanoma and kidney cancer.
By blocking a protein called PD-1 on the surface of T-cells, immune system cells can be activated to hunt down and kill cancer cells.
Professor Gareth Griffiths, of the University of Southampton, said: “The UK has one of the world’s highest incidences of mesothelioma and currently there aren’t many ways to treat it.
“Boosting the immune system by releasing killer T-cells that have previously been blocked could offer us a new way to treat more patients with this devastating disease.”
It’s an example of immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment which boosts the body’s natural defences in order to fight cancer.
Dr Catherine Pickworth, Cancer Research UK’s science information officer, said: “Immunotherapy treatments work by turning the power of our immune system against cancer.
“They are already being used routinely to treat advanced skin and kidney cancers, and are showing promise for other types of cancer too.
“This clinical trial will find out whether an immunotherapy drug could benefit people with mesothelioma, which is hard for doctors to treat successfully.”
Asbestos can still be present in buildings in the UK built or refurbished before the year 2000.
Mesothelioma affects the lungs, and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract.
Virtually all cases are due to asbestos, and by the time it’s diagnosed it’s usually fatal.
According to the American Cancer Society, symptoms include shortness of breath, pain in the side of the chest or lower back, and excessive sweating.