Remembering a Pioneer in Medical Research

May 20, 2012, marked the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Dr. Irving J. Selikoff, one of the greatest advocates for public health that this country has ever known.  As I reflected upon his passing, I wanted to share some of my observations about Dr. Selikoff’s legacy.  I write this article to honor Dr. Selikoff’s memory and pay tribute to this exceptional man.

Dr. Selikoff was a medical doctor and epidemiologist who played a pioneering role in documenting and publicizing the relationship between asbestos and mesothelioma.  When I filed my first asbestos case in 1978, it was Dr. Selikoff’s research that helped me prove that asbestos was the cause of my client’s mesothelioma.

I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Selikoff in person several times.  He was a wonderful and inspiring man.  Although he faced ridicule, personal attacks, and even threats from the asbestos industry, he never backed down.  He was always positive and extremely motivated about his mission to protect workers and their families.


By exposing the hazards of asbestos, Dr. Selikoff helped to save the lives of thousands of American workers.  His work continues to have a profound impact on millions of people throughout the United States and the world.

Dr. Irving Selikoff’s Early Career

Dr. Selikoff began his career as a medical doctor in suburban New Jersey.  When he began treating members of the local Asbestos Workers Union, Dr. Selikoff noticed a surprising and disturbing trend.  Asbestos workers were being diagnosed with lung disease and cancer at a significantly higher rate than his other patients.  Moreover, he found several cases of pleural mesothelioma among asbestos workers every year – an incredibly rare disease that was almost unheard of in the general population.

Dr. Selikoff knew that something was wrong.  He began a larger epidemiological study to measure the incidence of cancer and lung disease among workers who were exposed to asbestos, including shipyard workers.   In 1963, these findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  His conclusion:  asbestos causes cancer.

1964 Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos

Although Dr. Selikoff was not the first to verify the connection between asbestos and cancer, he played a key role in publicizing the danger to workers.  The results of his epidemiological research were so alarming that Dr. Selikoff knew he needed to act.

Asbestos was widely used by American industry in the 1950s and 60s.  The public health implications were grave.  Dr. Selikoff was determined to make sure that the dangers of asbestos would not be ignored.

In 1964, Dr. Selikoff organized a conference on the “Biological Effects of Asbestos” through the New York Academy of Sciences.  The conference was a turning point in public and scientific awareness of the hazards of asbestos.   The discussions were far-reaching and even included presentations showing that housewives could develop mesothelioma from exposure to their husbands’ work clothes.

Dr. Selikoff’s Legacy

Dr. Selikoff continued to work on behalf of asbestos workers throughout his career.  The asbestos industry and its lawyers criticized and questioned Dr. Selikoff’s work.  But he was tenacious; he never backed down or gave up.  Dr. Selikoff continued his fight because he believed that the public deserved to know the truth about asbestos, and that industry and government needed to take action to protect workers and their families.

Dr. Selikoff eventually became director of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Environmental and Occupational Health Division in New York.  The division was later renamed the “Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine.”

Today, medical researchers at Mount Sinai are focused on finding new and better ways to treat mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.  The Mount Sinai Thoracic Surgery division is at the cutting edge of mesothelioma treatment and care.    While Dr. Selikoff may be gone, his great legacy lives on.

For more information on the latest mesothelioma research, visit our Mesothelioma Knowledge Center.

History of the Ether Dome Offers Hope that Scientists Will Discover a Cure for Mesothelioma

Scientists are working every day to discover a cure for mesothelioma. I have always been optimistic that science will prevail over this terrible disease one day.  My optimism was invigorated after recently hearing the story of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Ether Dome and one of the most significant advances in medical history – the use of anesthetic to alleviate the excruciating pain of surgery.   The development of ether as an anesthesia over 150 years ago at the Ether Dome revolutionized medical treatment.   There is no reason that we cannot experience a similarly momentous event in the treatment of mesothelioma.

Massachusetts General Hospital’s Asbestos Medicine Conference

I knew that the use of anesthetia was a revolutionary development in medical history.  But my knowledge was greatly expanded after several of my firm’s members returned from the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Harvard Medical School’s annual Asbestos Medicine Conference.  This conference brings together the world’s foremost scientists and researchers on asbestos-related diseases.  During two days of presentations, these experts shared their extraordinary knowledge, including the most up-to-date and cutting-edge research.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have my firm’s attorneys, paralegals, and registered medical-legal assistant regularly attend the conference. This year Todd Eddins, a trial lawyer, and Cynthia Davis, our RN medical-legal assistant attended the conference along with two other members of my firm.  I believe that it is critical to stay abreast of all the recent developments in asbestos medicine and mesothelioma development, so I am always eager to hear what my team learns from many of the best scientists in the world.    This year was no different.  But it was particularly interesting for me to listen to my firm members’ enthusiastic description of a guided tour of the Ether Dome and its compelling story.

The Ether Dome

The Ether Dome is located in the Bulfinch Building in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.  It was situated just a few hallways and an elevator ride away from the meeting theater of the Asbestos Medicine Conference.   During lunchtime, members of my team  were delighted to have world-renowned pathologist Dr. Eugene Mark of Massachusetts General and Harvard Medical School, serve as tour guide.   Dr. Mark showed them the Ether Dome, and gave a guided tour through medical history.

Although the Ether Dome served as the hospital’s operating room following the opening of Massachusetts General in 1821, it was not called the Ether Dome until 1846.  This was the year that medical history was made when William Morton, a Boston dentist, performed the first use of an anesthetic during a public surgery.  As a result of that momentous event, the Ether Dome is a registered National Historic site.


The First Use of Anesthesia During Surgery

Prior to the advent of anesthesia, surgery was a terrifying event.  Alcohol or opium was used to numb patients, but provided little relief.  Patients often refused surgical treatment due to the excruciating pain.  Doctors had to operate quickly, often with fatal consequences, because most patients went into shock from the pain.  Those who survived surgery took weeks and months to recuperate.  In 1846, everything changed.

On October 16, 1846, a man named Edward Gilbert Abbott had a tumor on his neck surgically removed.  Mass General’s chief surgeon Dr. John Collins Warren undertook the normal preparations to remove the tumor.  But this surgery was like no other.  To an assembled audience of the leading physicians of the day, William Morton administered ether to Mr. Abbott.  Dr. Warren, recognized as the finest surgeon of his time, then removed the tumor.  The audience did not hear the usual screams of agony associated with surgery. The surgery was successful and Abbott experienced no pain.  He reported that the invasive surgery merely felt like his neck had been scratched. The event was celebrated in the newspapers and medical journals of the time.

Historical Medical Advancements Provide Hope Today

Ether’s use revolutionized hospital operating rooms around the world.  Surgery was no longer feared as it had been for hundreds of years.  Lives were saved.

When I reflect on what my team and I learned about Massachusetts General Hospital’s Ether Dome, I am heartened to think that there will one day be a similar breakthrough moment where we find a cure for mesothelioma.   The history of medicine is filled with small advances and large ones, like the use of anesthesia.  With patience, hard work, and will power, I am optimistic that we will eventually have a day even bigger than October 16, 1846.  We will have a celebrated day where mesothelioma no longer devastates families.

For more information about the medical research being done on mesothelioma today, visit our Mesothelioma Publications and Articles.

Hawai‘i Mesothelioma Researcher Makes Exciting New Discoveries

As an attorney who represents clients with mesothelioma, I have been privileged to visit the research laboratories at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center on several occasions.  I have met with the incredible staff and gifted researchers who are doing groundbreaking work to further our understanding of mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure.  I am always impressed by these world-class researchers and by the students at the Cancer Center.

Haining Yang, Ph.D.


One such scientist is Dr. Haining Yang, Ph.D.  I recently read about some exciting new discoveries by Dr. Yang and about the research she was doing.  Dr. Yang is someone we should continue to follow closely as her important work may someday translate into cutting-edge treatments for mesothelioma victims.  We are very fortunate to have Dr. Yang on the team of talented researchers and staff at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center.

Haining Yang is an assistant professor at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer.  Her work focuses on treatment and early detection strategies for asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.  Dr. Yang received her Ph.D., at Shandong University in China.  Among other things, Dr. Yang’s work focuses on early detection of mesothelioma using biomarkers, and she is exploring the effects of new chemotherapy drugs.


Dr. Yang Helps Lead The Charge Against Mesothelioma


Dr. Yang has made some very exciting discoveries that may translate into better detection and treatment methods for mesothelioma patients around the world.  For example, Dr. Yang discovered that TNF-alpha, a protein produced by the body during the inflammatory response which can be induced by asbestos, leads to a mediated survival mechanism that helps to protect damaged mesothelial cells from dying.  This then enables these damaged cells to divide and transform into what eventually becomes mesothelioma.


Dr. Yang more recently discovered the importance of HMGB1, an inflammatory mediator, in the growth and survival of a mesothelioma tumor.  When exposed to asbestos, mesothelial cells release HMGB1, which initiates the inflammatory process that is related to mesothelioma development.  It has been discovered that after the healthy cells are transformed, they are still “addicted” to the HMGB1, which is now believed to aid in the growth and development of a mesothelioma tumor.

New Discoveries May Bring New Approaches For Treatment


Mesothelioma is a very aggressive type of cancer.  Every year, thousands of people are affected by this disease.  Understanding why the cancer develops helps us to find new approaches for early detection, treatment and prevention of this deadly cancer.


Dr. Yang’s research brings us closer to understanding the cancer’s behavior, and what nurtures its growth and survival.  Traditionally, the aim has been to kill and remove deadly mesothelioma cells and tumors, but finding ways to prevent the cancer’s growth and survival may prove to be a very effective approach.


Many of the clients I have represented over the years have undergone surgery and chemotherapy treatments at some of the finest medical facilities in the country (“Outstanding Mesothelioma Treatment Facilities For Patients to Evaluate” article).  Unfortunately, surgical procedures are invasive and require a lot of strength, time and energy to recover from.  Chemotherapy drugs also have side effects that can leave patients feeling tired or ill, and can kill healthy as well as unhealthy cells and tissue.  Finding new, less-invasive ways of treating cancer would be a giant step in improving the quality of life for mesothelioma patients around the world, and I am proud that the University of Hawai‘i continues to be such an important hub for mesothelioma research.

For more information on asbestos and mesothelioma, including information on the latest treatment options, visit our Mesothelioma Knowledge Center.

Multimedia Presentations Change Patients’ Attitudes Toward Clinical Trials

I recently read about a new study conducted by researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida.  This study, published in the Journal of Oncology, focused on changing patients’ attitudes towards clinical trials which are studies conducted with patients to test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and innovative treatments.  The study revealed that cancer patients’ perceptions and attitudes regarding clinical trials tend to be negative.  The study’s lead author, Paul B. Jacobsen, Ph.D., one of the senior members at Moffitt, noted

“Clinical trials are critical to the development of more effective cancer treatments, however, clinical trials are hampered by low rates of patient participation.”

Changing Attitudes about Clinical Trials

The study was conducted to find ways to change this negative mind-set and to increase the willingness of patients to participate in various clinical trials.  Researchers decided to try using a multimedia approach which involved many different forms of audio and visual materials to change patients’ behavior towards participation in clinical trials.  The researchers discovered that this new multimedia approach had a greater effect on changing patients’ attitudes than the standard literature about clinical trials which is typically provided.

The study took 472 cancer patients who had never been asked to participate in clinical trials before and divided them into 2 groups.  One group was exposed to a multimedia presentation of materials regarding clinical trials.  The other group was provided existing pamphlets, brochures, and paper work describing clinical trials.  The study revealed the group who had received the multimedia presentation showed an increased willingness and enthusiasm about participating in clinical trials compared to the group that was simply provided with the standard printed materials.

Although this study only reached a small group of cancer patients, the new multimedia approach has the potential to have a tremendous impact on cancer patients’ perception of clinical trials in the future.  I have seen firsthand the benefits that can come from clinical trials research and am happy to see that researchers are finding ways to better educate patients’ about clinical trials so they seriously consider participating.

Clinical Trials Are Critical to Finding a Cure

I cannot stress enough the importance of clinical trials in someday finding a cure for many kinds of cancer, including mesothelioma.  Many of these studies have led to new treatments and drugs that have increased life expectancy and quality of life for many cancer and mesothelioma patients.

For example, the chemotherapy drugs Cisplatin and Gemcitabine were tested in collaboration with one another in a clinical trial.  The results of this clinical trial showed that their effectiveness in treating patients with mesothelioma was much greater when they were used together.  This new treatment is now available to mesothelioma patients as a viable treatment for their cancer.

There are hundreds of clinical trials beginning every day, but with low patient participation the true effects of these groundbreaking therapies, treatments and drugs may never be fully determined.  The results of this study demonstrate effective ways to increase the number of patients willing to participate in such clinical trials.

My Clients and Clinical Trials

I strongly urge all of my clients to talk to their doctors and medical professionals about participating in clinical trials.  This is a very important decision, but also an individual one that needs to be made by patients in consultation with their treating doctors.

The results of clinical trials help to improve the outlook for all of those suffering from devastating diseases like mesothelioma.  I am proud of all of my clients who have participated in clinical trials.  I strongly recommend if you or a loved one is suffering from mesothelioma that you discuss your options for participation in clinical trials with your doctors.

For more information on clinical trials please visit our webpage on clinical trials.