Mesothelioma Treatment and Cure Hope
The U.S. Senate has taken an historic step in acknowledging the responsibility of both the federal government and industry to fund research for a cure for malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung, heart and abdominal linings associated with asbestos exposure.
SB 852, the proposed Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, was recently amended to include a National Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Program. The bill would allocate $29 million per year for 10 years to meso research. Of this, the asbestos trust fund contributors would pay $17 million per year, and the government, through the National Institutes of Health, would contribute $12 million per year.
The program would provide $2.5 million per year each to ten national medical centers for research on the detection, prevention, treatment and cure of meso. The centers would be selected through a competitive peer review process that would evaluate such factors as their track record for exemplary laboratory and clinical research, geographic distribution, proximity to high incidence areas, and affiliation with Veterans Administration hospitals (noting that "veterans... have suffered excessively from mesothelioma").
The first-ever program also would establish a meso registry and a tissue bank. The registry would help collect data on patients' symptoms, treatment, outcomes and quality of life. Unlike Australia and most European countries, the U.S. does not have a system for tracking meso. The Tissue Bank would help researchers study blood and tissue in the effort to unlock the mysteries on how to control this deadly cancer.
"This is an important first step," said Roger Worthington, the founder of the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, which has advocated the creation of the program for the past three years. "We thank Senator Herb Kohl for his leadership in championing this long overdue program, and Senators Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter for recognizing its importance."
MARF had originally sought a separate federal appropriation for the research program, asserting that the government's duty to help asbestos cancer patients was essential on in its own, and should not be tied to the fortunes of a controversial asbestos trust fund bill. However, Senator Kohl recognized that the trust fund bill's focus solely on economic aspects of "asbestos injury" wrongly ignored the need to address the human suffering itself, and he therefore worked to incorporate MARF's proposed meso research program into the trust fund bill.
Grateful for this first step, MARF continues to call on industry and government to do more. Worthington describes the advances in the treatment of AIDS in the last ten years as just one example of the life-saving progress that can be made in a disease previously regarded as hopelessly lethal. He points out how far the U.S. still has to go in making a full commitment to help meso patients survive. As originally conceived by MARF, the NMRTP called for the federal government to invest $30 million per year. "If you look at how much the federal government invests in cancer generally, at the government's own role in the nation's asbestos tragedy, and at the current needs in meso research, $30 million is the bare minimum the government should invest to get a viable meso research program off the ground," Worthington says. Under the proposed bill, the government would contribute only $12 million per year, or 1/4 of 1% of the National Cancer Institute's annual budget. And even though one third of today's meso patients were exposed to asbestos in Navy ships and shipyards, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs still have no medical treatment or research programs for meso as they do for many other diseases.
MARF also calls on the companies who face tort liability for this asbestos-related cancer, which has been known since the 1950's, to do much more than $17 million per year. The 30 largest asbestos debtor corporations now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy are expected to contribute in excess of $65 billion to their bankruptcy settlement trusts. Since 2004, MARF has advocated that the asbestos debtor trustees set aside just 1% of these funds for meso research. This would amount to $650 million in private funds to help current and future meso patients. Unfortunately, the trust fund directors have so far declined to help.
Aside from the companies in Chapter 11, the remaining corporations that would benefit from SB 852 are also worth billions of dollars. Says Worthington, "MARF has always encouraged stakeholders to contribute commensurate with their knowledge, compassion and wealth. When you compare the wealth of these major companies with the history of their knowledge of the disease, the door remains open for more compassion."
"Since the industries which used asbestos in their products are now being forced by the government to compensate victims, we now have an opportunity to also require them to fund research to help victims survive longer and prevent future suffering," said Worthington, who thinks the industry and their insurers should contribute at least $200 million per year to research treatments for meso and other asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer and asbestosis.
The fate of SB 825 remains uncertain. MARF does not take a position on the bill, other than that Congress' and the stakeholders' first priority in addressing "asbestos injury" should be to relieve human suffering and death by fully funding the critically needed medical research.
MARF doctors estimate there are 5,800 meso patients struggling to survive now in the U.S. Between 2,500 and 4,000 Americans are diagnosed every year with meso and the cancer's incidence is not anticipated to peak for another 10 to 15 years. The average survival for patients who are not eligible for surgery is less than 12 months.
MARF is the national nonprofit organization whose mission is to eradicate mesothelioma as a life-ending disease. For more information, see www.marf.org or contact MARF Executive Director Chris Hahn, 805-560-8942. SANTA BARBARA, Calif., May 25, 2005