The “long and painful” legacy of asbestos in Scotland is to be tackled with a £2.1m Cancer Research UK grant to the University of Glasgow aimed at solving why it can take decades for exposure to the fibrous mineral to develop into cancer.

Mesothelioma, which currently has a very poor survival rate, most commonly starts in layers of tissue covering the lungs, usually following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, and can take more than 40 years to develop.

Cancer Research UK has awarded £2.1m to a team of researchers in Glasgow and Cambridge to help unlock answers to the questions of what happens in the decades between initial exposure to asbestos and diagnosis.

Led by Professor Daniel Murphy at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow and the University of Glasgow, and Professor Marion MacFarlane of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, they hope to find new molecular features that could make it easier to diagnose and treat mesothelioma earlier, before symptoms appear.

Early symptoms such as chest pain, fatigue and constant coughing can be overlooked because they are similar to other illnesse 

According to Cancer Research UK, the UK currently endures the highest incidence of mesothelioma worldwide, with the disease more prevalent in men due to occupation-related exposure, and rates significantly are higher in the West Coast of Scotland than the Scotland average with around 100 of the 200 new cases in Scotland each year in the region.

There was widespread industrial use of asbestos between 1950 and 1980, particularly in Glasgow and the surrounding area, as the material was manufactured in towns such as Clydebank and used in much heavy industry like ship building, which the River Clyde was famed for.

While the material is now outlawed, mesothelioma cases have increased since the early 1990s.

Professor Daniel Murphy, of the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow and the University of Glasgow, said: “Asbestos exposure has cast a dark shadow over Glasgow and the West Coast of Scotland with incidence rates of mesothelioma significantly higher here than the Scottish average.

“Mesothelioma is difficult to treat, and outcomes are usually poor for those diagnosed. In order to develop new strategies for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma, we need a much deeper understanding of the basic biology behind how it progresses.

“This new programme, REMIT, will build on substantial previous funding from Cancer Research UK for the world-leading Glasgow-led projects PREDICT-Meso & IAMMED-Meso, which seek to define the high-risk indicators for patients with pre-cancerous lung abnormalities potentially developing cancer. 

“Together, REMIT, IAMMED-Meso and PREDICT-Meso will now form a comprehensive strategy for early detection, risk stratification and more effective treatments for mesothelioma patients.”

Only around four in 10 (44.3%) people diagnosed with mesothelioma in Scotland survive their disease for one year or more (2015-2019).

Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: “Nearly half a century ago, Cancer Research UK scientists added to the understanding of just how dangerous asbestos could be. This research helped change health and safety regulations, reducing workers’ exposure to this deadly substance.

“Over the last two decades, Cancer Research UK-funded research has delivered progress in treating mesothelioma. New treatments that harness the immune system to attack mesothelioma are coming through, thanks to the hard work of researchers and generosity of our supporters.

“But the long and painful legacy of asbestos use is still sadly being felt today. Survival remains poor and we need better ways to catch mesothelioma earlier. That’s why we’re funding more research to develop our understanding of this disease and make an even greater difference for patients.”

Deputy director of the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit in Cambridge, Professor Marion MacFarlane, said: “Mesothelioma doesn’t respond to conventional therapy and the mutations that drive it aren’t easily targeted with drugs.

“Due to the prolonged period between initial exposure and diagnosis, and difficulty in distinguishing pre-cancerous tissues to benign ones, the molecular features of early-stage disease are poorly understood.”