We will remember 2020 for many reasons, with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic at or near the top of the list.
In the mesothelioma community, it was a year of COVID-related stress and FDA-approved hope. It was filled with emerging treatments and therapies made available to mesothelioma patients, victims receiving their deserved compensation, brands turning away from the dangerous ingredient talc, and important developments among some of the top hospitals.
When the calendar flips to a new year, we should remember 2020 for all the progress it brought in fighting this rare and deadly cancer. Here are the top 10 mesothelioma stories from the past year.
FDA Approves Opdivo and Yervoy for Unresectable Pleural Mesothelioma
This was the biggest news of 2020 for mesothelioma patients, doctors, researchers, caregivers, advocates and anyone else. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the immunotherapy combination for pleural mesothelioma. The approval is explicitly for unresectable cases, meaning those that can’t be helped with surgery.
Opdivo and Yervoy — brand names for nivolumab and ipilimumab, respectively — increase survival by four months compared to chemotherapy. The combination is also safe compared to chemotherapy, causing mild rashes and manageable side effects in most cases.
COVID-19 Pandemic and the Effect on Mesothelioma Patients
The COVID-19 pandemic swept through the United States — and elsewhere — causing understandable anxiety and stress. The group most affected was people with pre-existing respiratory issues, such as mesothelioma.
The coronavirus attacks the lungs and pleural mesothelioma forms in the lining next to the lungs. Patients with mesothelioma tumors on the lungs are at risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19. Their depleted respiratory health and struggling immune system leave the body susceptible to other diseases, such as this virus.
U.S. House of Representatives Scraps Plans for Asbestos Ban
The U.S. House of Representatives appeared destined to approve an asbestos ban during its September session. That destiny was scrapped at the 11th hour due to partisan politics.
The House indefinitely delayed any vote on the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act, and there’s no telling when the congress leaders will take up the issue again. The decision came down to semantics and fine-print language within the bill, which is an unfortunate reason to keep the door open for asbestos to continue affecting and killing thousands of Americans each year.
Leadership Change for the Boston VA Mesothelioma Program
Dr. Abraham “Avi” Lebenthal started the Boston VA mesothelioma program a decade ago. Now, he has handed the reins to Dr. Hassan Khalil, the newest thoracic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Khalil spoke to Mesothelioma Guide about joining Brigham and Women’s staff, plus taking over the VA program. He trained under three of the best mesothelioma specialists in the world: Dr. Lebenthal, Dr. Raphael Bueno and Dr. Marcelo DaSilva.
More Hospitals Offer NovoTTF-100L/Optune Lua for Mesothelioma
One of the top stories in 2019 was the FDA approving a tumor treating fields device for unresectable pleural mesothelioma. Since the approval around 19 months ago, the device has grown in popularity and accessibility.
The device, originally called the NovoTTF-100L System, was rebranded as Optune Lua. It’s available in more than 70 hospitals spanning 28 states.
Johnson & Johnson Stops Production of Talc Baby Powder Amid Lawsuits
Once experts identified the link between talc and mesothelioma — the common thread being asbestos — Johnson & Johnson became one of the main characters in the ongoing controversy.
The company decided in May to discontinue the talc versions of those products in the U.S. and Canada. The massive stack of legal claims against the company was the main reason for the move.
Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower Powder both rely on talcum powder, which comes from the mineral talc. Asbestos can contaminate talc and lead to mesothelioma for consumers, which led to tens of thousands of lawsuits
Johnson & Johnson’s top officials likely didn’t want to see another $750 million verdict from a mesothelioma case, which also led to them paying more than $100 million to settle 1,000 talc cancer claims.
Concerns Rise Around Asbestos in Talc Cosmetics
Johnson & Johnson isn’t the only company struggling with legal claims and negative press regarding its talc products. The Environmental Working Group tested cosmetics recently and found traces of asbestos in 15% of them, sounding alarms about the dangers of many products on the market.
FDA Approves Keytruda for Pleural Mesothelioma With High PD-L1 Expression
Opdivo and Yervoy weren’t the first two immunotherapy drugs approved for mesothelioma in 2020. The FDA decided in June to approve Keytruda, the brand name for pembrolizumab.
The approval is for a small subset of patients who have high levels of PD-L1. This cancerous protein appears on mesothelioma tumors and subdues the immune system. However, Keytruda halts the protein’s power and elevates the immune response against mesothelioma.
Florida’s AdventHealth Begins International Mesothelioma Treatment Program
Dr. DaSilva left Brigham and Women’s Hospital towards the end of 2019 to jump-start the new mesothelioma program at AdventHealth in Orlando. Early in 2020, he started putting together his team and seeing the first patients.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. DaSilva and the AdventHealth staff continued the International Mesothelioma Treatment Program’s progress. He had eight patients by June, with five of them having surgery.
Pennsylvania School District Faces Asbestos Controversy
Schools and school districts in Pennsylvania have faced asbestos issues since last year. In 2020, though, the problems resulted in criminal charges.
Two former Scranton School District officials — former superintendent Alexis Kirijan and former director of operations Jeffrey Brazil — were charged with felony child endangerment. Then-current maintenance supervisor Joseph Slack was also charged.
Schools in Philadelphia closed at the start of 2020 due to widespread asbestos concerns. One city school district teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma and connected her diagnosis to the unsafe working conditions in classrooms.
Sources & Author
- FDA Approves Drug Combination for Treating Mesothelioma. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-drug-combination-treating-mesothelioma. Accessed: 10/04/2020.
- People at Risk for Serious Illness from COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/high-risk-complications.html. Accessed: 03/11/2020.
- Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health Announces Discontinuation of Talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in U.S. and Canada. Johnson & Johnson. Retrieved from:
https://www.jnj.com/our-company/johnson-johnson-consumer-health-announces-discontinuation-of-talc-based-johnsons-baby-powder-in-u-s-and-canada. Accessed: 05/19/2020.
- Analysis: Talc-Based Cosmetics Test Positive for Asbestos. Environmental Working Group. Retrieved from: https://www.ewg.org/release/analysis-talc-based-cosmetics-test-positive-asbestos. Accessed: 12/02/2020.
- FDA Approves Pembrolizumab for TMB-High Solid Tumors. Targeted Oncology. Retrieved from:
https://www.targetedonc.com/view/fda-approves-pembrolizumab-for-tmb-high-solid-tumors. Accessed: 06/17/2020.
- Pa. School Officials Charged With Hiding Lead, Asbestos Problems. NBC 10 Philadelphia. Retrieved from: https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/scranton-school-officials-charged-hiding-lead-asbestos/2548623/. Accessed: 10/23/2020.
Sources & Author