For the Sake of Our Heroes -- A Mesothelioma Medical Research Program
A Grim Story Destined to Recur Until We Stop It
Asbestos' signature cancer is mesothelioma, one of the most lethal
and painful of all cancers. The tumor was described in the medical literature
as early as the 1930's, and its link to asbestos confirmed by 1964.
Yet, the need for research to develop treatments for mesothelioma was
overlooked for decades.
In 1979, when Steve McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma, his doctors
had no advice other than to "go home and tidy up your affairs."
Desperate, he turned to futile "alternative" treatments in Mexico.
20 years later, effective treatment was just as lacking. Admiral Elmo
Zumwalt, Jr., hailed as "the Navy's most popular leader since
World War II," received the best medical treatment available, but
succumbed to mesothelioma in 2000 within four months of his diagnosis.
The Honorable Bruce Vento, who served this country for 24 years in the
United States Congress, was diagnosed in January 2000, at just 59 years
old. Over 30 years earlier, while earning his teaching degree, he had
held a summer job in a local factory that had asbestos-insulated boilers.
He endured radical surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but died in just
For thousands of other Americans diagnosed each year, prognosis is just
as grim, and half of them live less than 14 months. In the pain it causes,
its progression, and its manner of causing death, mesothelioma is particularly
horrible. The patient cannot take a deep breath due to pain, and even
if he could, his lung capacity is severely restricted because the involved
lung is crushed by the weight of massive tumor or fluid. Unrelenting pain
as the tumor invades the chest wall, coupled sometimes with the tumor's
compression of the esophagus, lead to an inability to swallow. Direct
involvement of the heart sac or the pressure from fluid build-up on the
heart will eventually cause heart failure. Growth of the tumor in the
abdomen will lead to abdominal distention, and eventual death through
intestinal obstruction and wasting.
For these reasons, experts familiar with mesothelioma consider the physical
and emotional suffering it causes to occupy the highest range on any scale
of human suffering.
We Have The Resources; It Is The National Commitment That Is Needed
Since the first asbestos lawsuits were filed in the 1960's, about 56
billion dollars have changed hands, 37% to defense lawyers, experts, and
staff; 36% to plaintiffs; and 25% to plaintiffs' lawyers. The Rand
Institute for Civil Justice projects asbestos litigation will ultimately
cost corporate America between $200 billion and $275 billion. Despite
those staggering numbers - and the vast human suffering and drain on the
economy which they represent - almost none of these resources are being
invested in eradicating the source of the misery in the first place.
In 2001, the National Cancer Institute, with a budget of over $3 billion,
allocated less than $1.7 million for research on mesothelioma. This is
a fraction of what most other cancers received, even when adjusted by
number of fatalities.
The Department of Defense is also a major source of federal cancer research
funding. Congress has appropriated more than $1.2 billion to fund peer-reviewed
breast cancer research through the DoD, and $310 million for the DoD's
Prostate Cancer Research Program. The DoD also conducts a research program
for ovarian cancer, and as recently as 2002, established Congressionally-directed
research programs for prion disease, tuberous sclerosis and chronic myelogenous
leukemia. The DoD currently has no program for mesothelioma research funding,
even though many mesothelioma victims were exposed in the Navy or naval
As a result of such federal funding, major advances have been made in breast
and prostate cancer, and these and many diseases considered uniformly
fatal just two decades ago can now be successfully treated. It is time,
finally, for a similar commitment to treating mesothelioma.
Now is the Time
Congress now has an historic opportunity to address this national tragedy.
The two asbestos-related bills in the Senate focus attention on asbestos
issues as never before.
The first, SB 1125 - a compensation bill which would replace the current
litigation system with a capped trust fund, has sparked widespread interest
and debate. Corporations are spending
$1 million a month to lobby Congress in support of this bill. Trial lawyers, unions and other
opponents of the bill are spending millions more against it.
In the debate, words like "fatal" and "incurable" are
used to describe mesothelioma. But, while the trust is proposed to be
funded with at least $108 billion, and billions more are being consumed
meanwhile by asbestos litigation and lobbying,
not a dime is proposed for research on actually curing mesothelioma, or expanding
treatment options. Mesothelioma thus remains "incurable" only
because of our apathy towards actually curing it.
The second bill comes in here. The Ban Asbestos in America Act would finally
ban all commercial and consumer uses of asbestos. But the Act also recognizes
that even after asbestos is totally banned, mesothelioma will persist
for decades because of the millions of Americans already exposed but still
within the latency of the disease, and the millions more who will continue
to be exposed to the asbestos still contaminating our buildings, machinery
and appliances. Therefore, the Act would also, for the first time ever,
compel the federal government to fund mesothelioma research and treatment
programs. This is a critical first step. No matter what side one takes
on the debate over the asbestos litigation problem, everyone should agree
that the human death and misery caused by mesothelioma is a problem more
gravely unjust and even more in need of Congressional assistance.
In fact, there has never been a better opportunity for Congress to address
this problem. For the first time in the U.S. history of asbestos and asbestos
litigation, the private sector is uniting to cure mesothelioma. In 1999,
a group of doctors, patients, lawyers and company representatives acknowledged
that too much focus has been on fixing blame, and not enough on fixing
the problem. They formed the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation
(MARF), the national nonprofit whose mission is to eradicate mesothelioma
as a life ending disease. Funded entirely by private sources, including
parties on both sides of asbestos litigation and thousands of friends
and family of mesothelioma patients, MARF has now awarded over $1,000,000
in peer-reviewed research grants to advance mesothelioma treatment.
MARF's seed-money grants are stimulating the much-needed smaller-scale,
highly experimental projects which, once successful, become ideal candidates
for larger federal funding. Thus, through MARF, the effort to fund mesothelioma
research and develop a cure is receiving a crucial kick-start. The time
is right for the federal government to partner in this effort.
A second historical development also makes this a critical time for the
government to commit to funding mesothelioma research. Thanks to the persistence
of a small cadre of mesothelioma experts, decades of hopelessness are
beginning to yield to a "cautious optimism" regarding development
of effective treatments. Alimta is an example of this progress. Dr. Nicholas
Vogelzang, head of the Nevada Cancer Institute and a member of MARF's
Board of Directors, led the largest Phase III clinical trial ever conducted
in mesothelioma, showing that patients treated with Alimta improved significantly.
While this is not yet a cure, it represents real progress for mesothelioma
patients, and demonstrates the potential for further breakthroughs if
the government joins in and applies the necessary resources.
Indeed, these breakthroughs likely will not be limited to mesothelioma.
Funding mesothelioma research has broad applicability to cancer generally,
because this tumor is a microcosm of many other solid tumors. In fact,
since mesothelioma is more active and grows faster than most other tumors,
it can actually serve as a better, more effective subject of research
even with regard to improving treatments for other cancers.
Therefore, MARF recommends that Congress appropriate $28 million to create
a National Mesothelioma Research and Treatment Program. For the government
to step up now and partner in the development of a cure for mesothelioma
is the proper way to honor the sacrifice and public service of heroes
like Admiral Zumwalt and Congressman Vento. It is the just responsibility
owed to the thousands of unsung heroes now battling mesothelioma. And
it is a public health necessity with regard to the millions of Americans
who have been and continue to be exposed to asbestos and are at risk to
develop mesothelioma in the future.