The Role of Iron in Asbestos-Related Diseases

The toxic and carcinogenic nature of asbestos fibers is irrefutable. It is now associated with numerous pulmonary diseases, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, as well as several other types of cancer. Although much research has been conducted concerning asbestos and its effects in the human body, the minerals’ mechanisms and transformations still largely remain a mystery.

Asbestos exposure attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm highlight a new study recently published in Scientific Reports, which examines the relationship between asbestos fibers and iron in the body’s chemistry. In the human body, asbestos is known to gather iron on its cell surfaces, which in turn causes the iron to alter in the lung tissues. Asbestos fibers also have the intrinsic ability to attract iron from the surrounding environment, which, many scientists have suggested, seem to be a key characteristic of asbestos toxicity.

The study highlighted here was conducted by a group of Italian researchers, who examined the intriguing phenomenon of asbestos formation in the lungs and the role of iron in this formation. Researchers gathered a group of asbestos exposed patients to be involved in the study, and used a low energy X-ray microscopy to analyze the mechanisms of iron in the asbestos bodies.

At least two tissue samples were taken from each patient, who had medium to high content of asbestos bodies in their lungs. The examined asbestos bodies were of various dimensions and shapes, and no apparent differences were observed between the samples from mesothelioma patients and the others.

The data presented in Scientific Reports show for the first time different aspects of the iron concentration, distribution and speciation in diseased human lungs after asbestos exposure, that cannot be observed using conventional techniques. The researchers were able to demonstrate that long-lasting asbestos fibers and bodies cause large mobilization of iron into the surrounding cells and in the tissue.

As already supposed and reported in some studies, other chemical elements participate to the formation of asbestos bodies as well. The high amount of phosphorus, calcium and magnesium in the asbestos fiber casing, compared to their content in the cells, suggests that calcification is occurring along with iron deposition.

The presence of transition metals in the fibers and/or the ability of the fibers to gather and accumulate them are the first mechanisms suggested for explaining the toxic and carcinogenic effects of asbestos. It is known that lung cells have an active iron metabolism. The lung cells, acting as the first line defense against environmental toxins, such as asbestos, protect lung tissue against oxidative damage. However, the major lung defense is performed by one class of macrophages that interact and respond to various stresses. These macrophages are also involved in the development of asbestosis and cancer.

The formation of an asbestos body results in the deposition of endogenous iron, iron containing proteins, and other material on fibers in the lungs. On one hand, it is believed that the shell that is formed isolates the fiber from the tissue and reduces its damaging effect. On the other hand, the iron produced by the reaction to asbestos fibers and body formation, together with the presence of a potentially reversible iron reservoir, is considered responsible for an increase of iron mediated ROS production. This ROS production may trigger asbestos related disease, with potential DNA damage.

It is interesting that the central role of iron in asbestos toxicity and related disease development is consistent with a more general picture of a steadily growing number of diseases characterized by imbalance of the iron metabolism in cells and tissue. Among the most prominent examples are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes, and even cancer. Understanding the mechanisms of iron participation in the development of these diseases may lead to novel therapeutic targets.

Iron in living cells is a trace element and has a crucial role, acting as a component of fundamental enzymes and proteins. However, the same character of iron that plays an important biological role may cause toxicity by sustaining oxidative stress conditions.

Mesothelioma lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm hope this new study does indeed lead to new therapeutic targets. Asbestos was used abundantly in the United States until the late 1970s, and asbestos-related diseases are still being diagnosed throughout the country and the world. If you or someone you love was exposed to asbestos, and developed a related illness, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact an experienced asbestos exposure attorney immediately for a free legal consultation.