Geologists are primarily known for studying rocks and earth activities, such as volcanoes and earthquakes. Now geologists are also studying the connection between living organisms and earth materials. Two men, Steven Lower and Eric Taylor, began experimenting with one segment of this new sub field of geology in Lower’s lab at Ohio State University.
What drives mesothelioma? Mesothelioma is an incurable form of cancer located most commonly in the pleural lining of the lungs and is associated almost exclusively with the inhalation of asbestos. This is one example of where earth materials and living organisms meet. Their study focusses on the most deadly form of mesothelioma – crocidolite – or blue asbestos. The fibers of this asbestos lodge in the lungs and never dissolve. Not only do they remain intact, they can reside in a human for decades before discovery.
Through many experiments, these two men tested whether crocidolite binds to epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR.) This EGFR is a protein receptor on the surface of the lung cell that initiates cell division. They saw that crocidolite continually binds and unbinds with EGFR. This discovery led the scientists to postulate that, “crocidolite signals or triggers a potent response that may tell the cells to proliferate,” says Lower. “This may help explain why cancer develops.”
How does this discovery help fight mesothelioma? While a solution may be several years in the future, they suspect that by creating a small molecule that coats crocidolite fibers it may prevent the fibers from binding to EFGR which would prevent the spread of cancer cells. Taylor, working with chemist Roberto Lins at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil, developed supercomputer simulations to model the binding action. By understanding exactly how crocidolite attaches to EGFR, researchers could potentially tailor a molecule that would wedge between the two substances.
Lower and Taylor published their findings in “Langmuir,” and other papers will soon be published.
Photo: Epidermal growth factor receptor protein bound to asbestos surface. Credit: Roberto Lins, Federal University of Pernambuco and Steven Lower, The Ohio State University