For the first time, researchers from Ohio state university have embarked on a study to understand how asbestos fibres can cause cancer.
The researchers believe that their work may aid in drug development efforts, aimed towards finding potential cures for illnesses caused by excessive exposure to asbestos, including the deadly cancer called mesothelioma.
With a view to observing how a single asbestos fibre binds with a specific receptor protein on cell surfaces, the research team uses atomic force microscopy.
Study's co-author Eric Taylor, a doctoral candidate in earth sciences at Ohio State, described atomic force microscopy as "Braille on a molecular level", which allows the team to feel what was happening on molecular surfaces.
"We're looking at what molecules are involved in the chain of events when the fibre touches the cell. Does the binding occur over minutes, or hours? And what processes are triggered?" said Taylor, who presented the research at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
So far, the study has been focused to blue asbestos (Crocidolite), a part of the amphibole group of asbestos minerals that were used in such products as ceiling tiles and thermal insulation, before being banned in most of the Western world by the mid-Eighties.
However, the researchers eventually hope to study how all six forms of asbestos interact with certain proteins on cell surfaces.
According to them, some forms of asbestos can dissolve in the lungs if they are inhaled, but others are believed to essentially "stick" to cells, especially at high concentrations, and eventually cause lung diseases.
"For the first time, this will give us data on biological activity that should help policymakers determine which forms of asbestos are the most dangerous," said Steven Lower, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State and a co-author on the study.
"The hypothesis we're testing is that binding of cell surface receptors to asbestos fibers triggers a signal event, which initiates the cancer.
"There seems to be something intrinsic about certain types of asbestos, blue asbestos in particular, that elicits a unique signal, and it triggers inflammation, the formation of pre-malignant cells and, ultimately, cancer," added Lower, also a faculty member in the School of Environment and Natural Resources.
The researchers have revealed that the first protein to be studied is epidermal growth factor receptor, which is present on the surface of every human cell.
Lower said that understanding the intricacies of the binding process between the mineral and one or more proteins might provide an index of the biological activity of a particular type of asbestos, and lead the researchers to figure out how to prevent or undo that interaction.
Taylor said that the driving motivation behind the research was the potential to find a way to intervene and prevent illness even after someone was exposed to asbestos.