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We thank M. Padgett for expert editorial and stylistic assist-
ance in the preparation of this manuscript. K. Liby, F. Tosetti,
R. Benelli and D. Noonan have given valuable suggestions
and comments. We are especially indebted to C. Leaf for com-
ments about ‘risk versus risk’. A.A. is supported by grants
from the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro
(AIRC) and Ministero della Salute. M.B.S. is supported by
grants from the US National Cancer Institute and the National
Foundation for Cancer Research.
Competing interests statement
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
The following terms in this article are linked online to:
Entrez Gene: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.
COX2 | CXCR2 | CXCR4 | CXCL12 | HIF1α | iNOS | KEAP1 |
MMP9 | NFκB | NRF2 | PAI1 | PI3K | SMAD4 | STAT3 | STAT5 |
TGFβ | VEGFA
Access to this interactive links box is free online.
Mesothelioma is a cancer arising from
the mesothelial cells that line the pleural,
pericardial and peritoneal surfaces1,2.
Although there are rare benign variants
of mesothelioma, such as multicystic
mesothelioma or mesothelioma of the
atrioventricular node, which are not related
to asbestos exposure1,2, this article focuses
on the relatively more common malignant
mesothelioma. In the United States there
are approximately 2,500 cases and deaths
per year of malignant mesothelioma, which
is often related to asbestos exposure (BOX 1).
Median survival is approximately 1 year
from diagnosis because current therapies
have only marginal effects in altering the
natural course of the disease1. Although the
link between asbestos exposure and
mesothelioma was established in 1960, it
is still unclear whether all types of asbestos
cause mesothelioma3–6 (BOX 2).
Mechanisms of mineral fibre carcinogenesis
The mechanisms of mineral fibre carcino-
genesis have been studied prevalently using
crocidolite asbestos, and are summarized
below. Carcinogenesis as a result of expo-
sure to crocidolite has been linked to its
ability to induce the expression of both
tumour-necrosis factor-α (TNFα) and its
receptor (TNFR1) in mesothelial cells and
in macrophages that phagocytose asbestos7.
Indeed, Tnfr1 knockout mice do not develop
fibroproliferative lesions after asbestos
SCIENCE AND SOCIETY
A mesothelioma epidemic in
Cappadocia: scientific developments
and unexpected social outcomes
Michele Carbone, Salih Emri, A. Umran Dogan, Ian Steele, Murat Tuncer,
Harvey I. Pass and Y. Izzettin Baris
Abstract | In Cappadocia, Turkey, an unprecedented mesothelioma epidemic
causes 50% of all deaths in three small villages. Initially linked solely to the exposure
to a fibrous mineral, erionite, recent studies by scientists from Turkey and the
United States have shown that erionite causes mesothelioma mostly in families
that are genetically predisposed to mineral fibre carcinogenesis. This manuscript
reports, through the eyes of one of the researchers, the resulting scientific advances
that have come from these studies and the social improvements that were brought
about by both the scientists and members of the Turkish Government.
NATURE REVIEWS | CANCER
VOLUME 7 | FEBRUARY 2007 | 147
© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
exposure8. Crocidolite induces cell lysis
and apoptosis9, however, asbestos-induced
TNFα secretion activates nuclear factor-κB
(NF-κB) that protects mesothelial and other
cells from crocidolite-induced cell lysis7.
Therefore, asbestos-damaged mesothelial
cells divide rather than die and can propa-
gate the genetic damage7 that is induced
by mutagenic oxygen radicals released by
mononuclear phagocytes that have ingested
asbestos10–13. Moreover, asbestos induces the
phosphorylation of extracellular signal-
regulated kinases 1 and 2 (ERK1 and
ERK2), which leads to the activation of the
transcription factor AP1 and stimulates cell
division10. Activation of this pathway can
also promote cell invasion by causing the
induction and release of cellular metallopro-
teinases14. Whether other types of asbestos
and mineral fibres are carcinogenic owing to
the same mechanisms is under investigation.
Mesothelioma is rare between cohorts
that are not exposed to asbestos, but it is
frequent in workers who are exposed to
it. For example, 4.6% of South African
crocidolite asbestos miners who had been
exposed to asbestos for more than 10 years
developed and died of mesothelioma15. This
finding highlights the risk of this disease
among asbestos workers, and at the same
time shows that only a fraction of heavily
exposed individuals develop mesothelioma.
In contrast to other carcinogens there is no
linear dose–response relationship between
asbestos exposure and the incidence of
mesothelioma2. Above a certain threshold
additional exposure does not seem to pro-
portionally increase the risk of developing
mesothelioma. Instead, some people seem
more susceptible than others2. Most studies
report that about 80% of mesotheliomas
develop in asbestos-exposed individuals5.
However, the association of exposure with
the development of mesothelioma varies
from about 10% to 100% depending on the
article and on the criteria used to establish
whether exposure has occurred5.
The obvious question that arises from
these studies is whether there are cofactors
that make some individuals more susceptible
to asbestos carcinogenesis. We found that
genetic predisposition to mineral fibre car-
cinogenesis has led to an epidemic of this
disease in Cappadocia, Turkey, and also
in some US families16,17. We also found
that simian virus 40 (SV40) functions as a
co-carcinogen with crocidolite asbestos in
causing meso thelial cell transformation18.
SV40 can also induce the development
of mesothelioma in hamsters exposed to
crocidolite, and it lowers the amount of croci-
dolite that is required to cause the disease14.
Crocidolite–SV40 co-carcinogenesis has
been independently verified19–22. Experiments
are in progress in our laboratory to inves-
tigate whether co-carcinogenesis extends
to other mineral fibres. So far, our studies
indicate that genetics and viral infection
influence mineral fibre carcinogenesis and
that the risk of mesothelioma in individu-
als exposed to asbestos and erionite varies
depending on their genetic background and
possible exposure to other carcinogens.
In this Science and Society article M.C.
discusses the sequence of events, obtained
with his co-authors, that have linked
genetic predisposition to mineral fibre car-
cinogenesis in some villages in Cappadocia,
Turkey. In addition to the scientific results,
some social issues concerning this work are
Box 1 | Asbestos and mesothelioma
Mesothelioma was rare until the second half of the twentieth century47. In 1960, C. Wagner
reported a mesothelioma epidemic among crocidolite asbestos miners in South Africa48. After
the report from Wagner, the link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma remained
controversial over the following decade. Epidemiological data (reviewed in REF. 34) and
experiments in animals supported this association (reviewed in REF. 49). Eventually, the
argument was settled in the scientific community, and the idea that people exposed to
asbestos had an unusually high incidence of mesothelioma was accepted50–52. However, the
debate still persists on whether all types of asbestos cause mesothelioma. There are, in fact, two
main types of asbestos. The first type, amphibole asbestos, includes the minerals crocidolite,
amosite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite. The second type, serpentine asbestos, is also
called chrysotile. According to some experts, only amphibole asbestos, particularly crocidolite
and amosite (which were mostly mined in South Africa), causes mesothelioma. Chrysotile
(which is still mined in some countries) does not cause the disease, and mesotheliomas
associated with chrysotile exposure are probably caused by the frequent contamination with
tremolite3. Other experts, however, argue that chrysotile is as dangerous as amphibole asbestos
and consider chrysotile the main cause of mesothelioma in the developed world, because it
accounts for about 90% of all exposures4 (BOX2). A review of the literature on this topic revealed
that the data were so diametrically different that it was not possible to reconcile these
The median latency from time of asbestos exposure to disease development is about 32 years
and ranges from 20 to about 50 years1,2,34. Early diagnosis (stage 1A) and surgical treatment are
often associated with prolonged survival of ≥5 years, but less than 5% of mesotheliomas are
diagnosed at this early stage1. By the time patients develop clinical symptoms, usually
dyspnoea (difficulty in breathing) and pain, and seek medical attention, the disease is well
advanced and incurable1,53.
Box 2 | Economic issues related to asbestos and mesothelioma research
After 40 years of research on whether chrysotile does or does not cause mesothelioma, the issue is
still unresolved, and the controversy is stronger than ever6. The argument is not purely scientific:
the economic implications of linking chrysotile or any other agent to mesothelioma are enormous
because of litigation54, and chrysotile production is a major source of revenue for some countries.
The most prominent example of economic versus scientific argument is seen in the United States,
where, up until 2002, defendants had paid out US$54 billion in asbestos-related claims and the
estimated future liability ranges from $145 to $210 billion54. Asbestos victims, however, have
received less than half this money, because over 50% of the money is spent in transaction costs,
mostly attorney fees54. Because most asbestos-containing products were banned from the
marketplace in the 1970s, it had been predicted that the incidence of asbestos-related diseases
would decrease and the claims would decline. However, the volume of new asbestos cases and the
costs of litigation continue to increase54. Because of this, any research that seems to link any factor
other than asbestos to mesothelioma pathogenesis becomes invariably controversial, like
chrysotile, which some experts believe was erroneously included in the asbestos family because it
has significant mineralogical and biological differences compared with amphibole asbestos.
Recently, the research linking simian virus 40 (SV40) to mesothelioma has also caused problems
because SV40 contaminated early polio vaccines; therefore vaccine manufacturers have been
dragged into litigation.
The published literature reflects these conflicts of interest and it is difficult to identify articles that
might have some bias from those that do not. Our studies on erionite and genetic predisposition to
mineral fibre carcinogenesis have not been controversial, probably because the problem seems
localized in Cappadocia where litigation is not a factor.
148 | FEBRUARY 2007 | VOLUME 7
© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
A mesothelioma epidemic in Cappadocia
In 1978, Y.I.B. discovered an unprec-
edented epidemic of mesothelioma
among three villages, Karain, Tuzkoy
and Sarihidir, which are located in
Cappadocia, Turkey23,24. Selikoff and
co-workers proposed that the epidemic
was caused by exposure to asbestos25, but
subsequent studies by Y.I.B. and colleagues
demonstrated that asbestos had little if
anything to do with this epidemic26,27.
Tremolite and chrysotile asbestos are com-
monly found in Turkey (as components of
the white stucco used to cover the walls of
many houses, for example), but these min-
erals are rare in these three villages — they
are present at levels that are comparable
to the levels detected in other villages
nearby in which mesothelioma does not
occur26. Instead, mineralogical studies
and analyses of lung content showed
the presence of a fibrous mineral called
erionite, a zeolite group mineral that has
some physical properties similar to cro-
cidolite27,28 (FIG. 1a). Erionite is contained
in the zeolite stones that are used to build
houses in these three villages (FIG. 1b).
Traces of erionite have been detected in
the air in these villages and it has been
proposed that inhalation of even minute
amounts of erionite is sufficient to cause
mesothelioma29 (BOX 3). This hypothesis
is supported by data showing that inhala-
tion of erionite caused mesothelioma in
27 out of 28 rats, whereas other types of
asbestos induced only 11 mesotheliomas
in a study of 648 rats30. These findings led
the International Agency for Research on
Cancer to conclude that erionite is the
cause of the mesothelioma epidemic in
Cappadocia31. Only later was it shown that
erionite is highly mutagenic in cultured
cells32, and that it induces AP1 activity33,
triggering a pathway that numerous stud-
ies have linked to the carcinogenicity of
asbestos10,14. Therefore, there are at least
two minerals that can cause mesothe-
lioma: asbestos and erionite. Curiously,
erionite is present in many parts of the
world. For example, the largest and purest
deposits are found in Nevada, Oregon
and California in the USA, and erionite
is found also in Japan, New Zealand and
in several European countries31. However,
except for Cappadocia, nowhere else in the
world has erionite exposure been linked
to the development of mesothelioma.
Therefore, the issue of erionite and mes-
othelioma remained a curiosity that was
only discussed in specialized textbooks.
In 1997, I was invited by Y.I.B., who
was then chief of the Department of
Pulmonary Medicine at the University
Hacettepe in Ankara, Turkey, and by his
associate, S.E., to present a lecture at the
Turkish Lung Society Meeting, which was
held in Ankara. I had never met Y.I.B.,
but I had read about his work in the three
villages. I asked Y.I.B. and S.E. whether I
could visit these villages and they agreed.
Y.I.B. had dedicated the previous 20 years
to helping the people of these villages. He
had bought them medicines, school sup-
plies and food, never charging a patient,
and he had argued with the administrators
in various hospitals that they should pro-
vide the villagers with mesothelioma with
free medical care.
The mesothelioma villages
Cappadocia is located in Central Anatolia in
the south-eastern part of Turkey. The geol-
ogy of Cappadocia is astonishing and surreal
(Supplementary information S1 (box)). The
volcanic rocks that dominate this area are
composed of zeolite-rich layers that contain
the fibrous whitish, soft and friable erionite,
among other zeolite minerals (FIG. 1a). The
fibrous nature of this material sometimes
can be seen with the naked eye as white, soft
spots in these rocks.
Karain (FIG. 1b), the first ‘cancer village’
discovered by Y.I.B. in 1974 is a 5-hour drive
from Ankara. The houses of this village are
built with stones carved out from the nearby
mountains and caves or taken from a nearby
river, and therefore they contain various
amounts of erionite. In Karain, mesothelioma
causes >50% of all deaths. When we visited
the village in 1997 about 600 people were liv-
ing there. However, during the past 10 years
many people have died of mesothelioma
and others have left Karain hoping to escape
their fate. For example, 11 people died from
mesothelioma between January and August
2006 and a further 6 people who emigrated
from Karain to Europe also died. At present,
the village has about 150 inhabitants.
Y.I.B. took us around Karain where in
some houses almost everybody had died of
mesothelioma, whereas in adjacent houses
nobody had died of this disease. I noted
the same situation in Tuzkoy and in ‘old’
Sarihidir, where the ‘houses of death’, as the
villagers have named them, were located
immediately next to houses where no cases
of mesothelioma had occurred. This was
thought to be because there was a different
Figure 1 | Erionite and the village of Karain. a | A scanning electron
microscope image of erionite is shown. Note the individual fibrils (0.5 µm in
diameter) forming the erionite bundles (5 µm in diameter). b | The village
of Karain is shown, where the houses are built with carved blocks of stone
quarried from the erionite-containing rock from the nearby mountain
NATURE REVIEWS | CANCER
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© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
and more oncogenic type of erionite present
in the houses in which people had died
of mesothelioma. This, I was told, was
supported by the observation that mesothe-
lioma did not occur in every house and that
there was the possibility that the levels of
some elements, such as sodium, potassium,
calcium and magnesium, varied slightly
among erionite samples from different parts
of the world. It was thought that these subtle
chemical differences were responsible for the
differences in oncogenicity of erionite from
nearby houses and villages, and between
Turkish and American erionite. The chemi-
cal composition and the details of the crystal
structure of the erionite from Cappadocia
were, at that time, unknown, and the
hypothesis was unproven.
However, this hypothesis did not seem
to fit with the parallel hypothesis that
minute amounts of erionite in the air were
sufficient to cause mesothelioma28. Many
‘houses of death’ have been demolished
and their ruins have been left on the
ground. Apparently, this was done to
prevent people from moving into the
abandoned houses and running the risk of
developing mesothelioma. The wind blows
the dust from these ruins throughout the
village, covering, with a whitish erionite-
containing dust, the clothes of anyone who
spends a few hours there (Supplementary
information S2 (box)). As the entire village
is exposed to this dust, why does mesothe-
lioma occur mostly among people living in
There is another village about 3 km from
Karain called Karlik. The houses in Karlik
are built with similar material, however,
in Karlik the incidence of mesothelioma is
In Karlik I learned that the villagers of
Karain, Tuzkoy and Sarihidir live in a state
of semi-isolation. Residents of the villages
nearby are afraid of being ‘infected’ by those
living in the villages with mesothelioma.
I was warned by Karlik villagers not to
speak to those from the villages with a high
incidence of mesothelioma, or share their
meals, because I would become ‘weak’ and
develop cancer. Accordingly, it is difficult
for people from the ‘cancer villages’ to find
wives or husbands from outside their vil-
lage. In Karlik, these fears were reinforced
when a woman from Karain married a man
from Karlik, and then died of mesothelioma
(the only reported case of mesothelioma
in Karlik). Some Karlik villagers are now
afraid that mesothelioma might spread to
their village. The villagers of Karain, Tuzkoy
and Sarihidir also have difficulties in selling
their produce at the local markets — they
often take the bus to Ankara (an 11-hour
return trip) to sell their produce. Some
villagers emigrated to Ankara or to Europe
hoping to escape mesothelioma. Other
villagers, however, believe that this is their
‘fate’ and that leaving will make no differ-
ence as they observed that some villagers
who emigrated still died of mesothelioma,
their bodies being returned to be buried
in their home village. In this ‘reality’, any
cough or sickness is seen as a possible sign
Tuzkoy, which has a population of about
1,300 had from three to six patients with
mesothelioma each time I visited (12 times
in total). We saw four patients during my
first visit (Supplementary information S3
(box)) and there were three during my last
visit in September 2006, an extremely high
incidence considering that, although the
incidence of mesothelioma in the developed
world continues to increase34, it is still on
average about 2–20 per 106.
I was considered to be an expert on
mesothelioma by these villagers, so people
were approaching me asking for help. They
thought that I should know how to help
them, and I had nothing to offer. Science
is about facts, not feelings, and it is highly
unusual to express feelings in a scientific
article, but feelings are what motivate us to
discover the facts. I thought that I had to do
something to try to help the villagers, so I got
involved, and what should have been a tourist
excursion became a major research project.
MPM MPEM Lung
160/14589/88 76/743/4 2/23/3 2/1
87 32 154811
46/41 17/157/8 1/3 5/31/00/1
Box 3 | Erionite-associated mesotheliomas
Erionite has been associated only with mesothelioma, whereas asbestos has been definitively
linked to the development of mesothelioma, lung cancer (asbestos has a synergistic effect with
smoke) and possibly laryngeal cancer2. Some evidence indicates that asbestos might also have a
role in the pathogenesis of lymphoma and multiple myeloma55. Y. I.B. and colleagues investigated
the possibility that erionite could cause other types of cancer56, and some of the results are
summarized in the table.
The data show that the carcinogenic effect of erionite is specific for mesothelioma, although in
these three villages there might be a non-statistically significant increase in the incidence of some
types of cancer compared with the general population56. We propose that this specificity could be
explained by the presence of a unique genetic alteration in the mesothelial cells of some of these
villagers, which makes their cells unusually susceptible to erionite carcinogenesis. The mean age of
death for mesothelioma was 50 years56, compared with >70 years in sporadic asbestos-associated
mesotheliomas1. In these villages, almost all males (M) are heavy smokers, but females (F) do not
smoke (although they are exposed to secondary cigarette smoke). In contrast to lung cancer,
smoking does not increase the risk of pleural mesothelioma57. The fact that lung cancer incidence
was not significantly increased indicates that either erionite, in contrast to asbestos, does not
synergize with smoking, or that most people die of mesothelioma before they develop lung cancer.
There are no pathological differences in mesotheliomas that develop in Cappadocia compared with
mesotheliomas in the developed world. MPEM, malignant peritoneal mesothelioma; MPM,
malignant pleural mesothelioma.
150 | FEBRUARY 2007 | VOLUME 7
© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
Is erionite the only cause?
The trip to Cappadocia changed my per-
spective about this epidemic, I thought that
erionite was not the only cause of mesothe-
lioma. I convinced S.E. to work with me,
and Y.I.B. gave his approval. We recruited
a Ph.D. student to help S.E., and together
we accumulated all possible information
about the villagers of Karain and Tuzkoy:
what they ate and drank, what they did,
where they worked, where they lived, their
family pedigrees, causes of death, and so
on. I also had an alternative hypothesis:
that SV40 infection, in combination with
erionite exposure, was the cause of this
mesothelioma epidemic. We had previously
published that SV40 was present in some
patients with mesothelioma (reviewed in
REF. 35), but the pathogenic implications of
this finding are controversial36–37. We found
no trace of SV40 in biopsy specimens from
patients with mesothelioma in Cappadocia,
and negative findings were later reported by
two other research teams38,39. The negative
results seemed reliable because in parallel
experiments all three research teams had
detected SV40 in mesothelioma biopsy
specimens from the United States and from
Italy (REFS 38,39; P. Rizzo and M.C., unpub-
lished observations). Preparing accurate
pedigrees was extremely difficult: there are
no official records and the limited infor-
mation available always lacks the mother’s
side of the family. For example, four children
were indicated as ‘sons and daughters of
Muhammet’ without mentioning the fact
that they were from two different mothers.
The first two children had both died of
mesothelioma, as had their mother. When
their father remarried he had two more
children who had not developed the disease.
The initial analysis had found an incidence
of mesothelioma in that family of 50%, but it
was 100% on one side of the family and zero
on the other. Another major obstacle was the
identification of the cause of death, at times
reported as ‘fate’, even in the records of the
local health centres. We had to interview
hundreds of people and review many clinical
records to see how many of those deaths of
‘fate’ were due to mesothelioma.
The results showed that mesothelioma
occurred in certain families but not in others.
When members of high-risk families mar-
ried members of a family with no history of
mesothelioma, the descendants developed
the disease. The issue of the houses seemed
unrelated to the epidemic. Multiple gen-
erations of the same family live in the same
house, so it was probable that the houses
were not to blame, but that the epidemic was
genetic, caused by significant inbreeding
among the high-risk families of these villages
owing to limited contact with people from
We published these results in 2001
(REF. 16). When Y.I.B. read the manuscript
he called me and said he did not believe
our results. So, I sent him all our data and
waited. Less than 6 weeks later he called me
and confirmed that, except for a couple of
minor mistakes, the pedigrees were correct,
and offered to work with me on this project.
Y.I.B. started assembling the pedigrees of
the villages of Tuzkoy and of ‘old’ Sarihidir.
Old Sarihidir was a small village of ~300
people in 97 houses who lived in close
proximity. This village is located along the
Kizilirmak (Red River) and was abandoned
in 1960 owing to continuous flooding. The
villagers were relocated on the other side of
the river. The ‘new’ Sarihidir has been built
with bricks and cement, therefore reducing,
but not eliminating, erionite exposure. Some
villagers demolished their homes in the old
village and used those stones to rebuild part
of their new houses. Y.I.B. prepared numerous
pedigrees from this village and we met often
in Cappadocia to review the data, interview
the villagers and examine those with mes-
othelioma (FIG. 2). A.U.D., a mineralogist,
joined our team to investigate whether dif-
ferent compositions of erionite were present
in different villages and/or houses, and the
possible relationship that this might have with
the development of mesothelioma.
Initially it seemed that these pedigrees
confirmed the results of our previous
work that was based on the pedigrees from
Karain and Tuzkoy16. Then Y.I.B. produced
a pedigree from old Sarihidir showing that
mesothelioma had occurred in several people
who had married members of a ‘mesothe-
lioma family’ (FIG. 3; we called this Family 1
because we had to start over). These results
argued against my genetic hypothesis and
indicated that mesothelioma was caused by
erionite exposure, not genetics. We needed
the pedigrees of those family members who
had married into Family 1. Because of the
relocation of the village, many families from
old Sarihidir were now scattered around
Turkey and Europe. This research was taking
more and more of our time and was expen-
sive. So far we had worked during our holi-
days, using our personal money and time.
A.U.D. could no longer sustain the costs of
the mineralogical studies with his personal
funds. I had similar problems related to the
high cost of my travel expenses. Our initial
grant applications had been rejected on the
basis that there was no published evidence
— except for our own — that genetics
influenced mineral fibre carcinogenesis.
For a few months we did not know how to
proceed. Then we were awarded a grant from
the American Cancer Society and support
from other foundations to continue our
studies. However, there were other problems
arising. The villagers were unhappy with
our paper reporting that genetics was the
cause of the epidemic. They felt that this
finding marked them and did not obviously
help with treatment. And I now had serious
doubts about my own genetic hypothesis
because of the data on Family 1 and on addi-
tional families with similar pedigrees that the
research of Y.I.B. had uncovered, including
17 cases of mesothelioma among women
who were born outside the villages with high
incidence of mesothelioma but had married
men in these villages and relocated there. It
seemed that when we had finally received a
grant for these studies, the entire project was
going to collapse.
Figure 2 | Our office in Sarihidir. This photograph shows where and how a large part of our work was
done. When we set up our ‘office’, many villagers with different medical conditions, ranging from mes-
othelioma to dermatitis, sought our advice and helped us to prepare the family pedigrees. We never
saw patients alone, family members were always present and actively discussed patients, symptoms
and our proposed treatments. Clockwise from left, Y. Ozdogan, who is our key worker in Sarihidir, M.C.,
Y. I.B., a patient, her niece and her son (standing), and S.E.
NATURE REVIEWS | CANCER
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© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
65 3077 32 4545
However, we continued and found that
those individuals who had married into
Family 1 (and in families with similar pedi-
grees) and developed mesothelioma were
also from families with a history of develop-
ing this disease. At the same time, A.U.D.’s
initial mineralogical results suggested that
there were no apparent differences between
erionite samples from different parts of
the world or between samples from dif-
ferent houses or villages in Cappadocia.
Furthermore, we found that none of the
family members who was born outside
Cappadocia had developed mesothelioma.
Together, these results indicated that
mesothelioma was caused by the interaction
of erionite with an unknown genetic trait.
That genetics could influence mineral fibre
carcinogenesis was a fascinating hypothesis.
Our most recent studies have confirmed
that a genetic predisposition to erionite
carcinogenesis is the cause of the mesothe-
lioma epidemic. We found that the levels of
erionite in the non-mesothelioma village
of Karlik were comparable to those found
in the nearby villages with a high incidence
of mesothelioma. The same type of erionite,
erionite-K, is found in Oregon, Karlik and
in old Sarihidir. The chemical analyses indi-
cated that none of the villages had erionite
with unusual chemical features. In the same
village, no differences in composition or
in presence of erionite were found among
houses with high, low or no incidence of
mesothelioma, and all the houses tested con-
tained erionite. We still need to rule out the
possibility that the concentration of erionite
in the air could vary among different villages
or houses and that this might influence
the incidence of mesothelioma. Although
significant differences seem unlikely, espe-
cially in the same village, we will address this
hypothesis experimentally in the near future.
Finally, the crystal structure of erionite,
obtained with the help of I.S., revealed no
differences between erionite samples from
Cappadocia and from the United States. In
particular, there is no indication of another
closely related mineral called offretite.
We found that mesothelioma was preva-
lent in certain families and absent in others,
and that when members of ‘mesothelioma
families’ married into a ‘non-mesothelioma
family’ some of the descendants developed
the disease17. Unique geographical and
cultural characteristics apparently caused
the clustering of mesothelioma in these three
villages. Our findings do not call into ques-
tion the large body of literature indicating
that erionite is a potent carcinogen that can
cause mesothelioma31. It is certainly possible
that some individuals have or would have
developed mesothelioma because of erionite
exposure alone. The occurrence of mesothe-
lioma in the few women from nearby villages
who moved, as a result of marriage, to the
villages with high incidence of mesothelioma
supports this interpretation. However, we
have recently identified clusters of mesothe-
lioma in families of nearby villages (Y.I.B.,
S.E. and M.C., unpublished observations)
and it is possible that some of these patients
are from families who have a genetic predis-
position for developing this disease. To date
we have not obtained their pedigrees so a
final assessment is not currently possible. At
the same time, the observation that sporadic
mesothelioma is observed among people
exposed to asbestos indicates that exposure
to certain mineral fibres is sufficient to
cause mesothelioma. In conclusion, the data
indicate that exposure to erionite causes a
higher incidence of mesothelioma in certain
families compared with others.
The alternative hypothesis is that the mes-
othelioma epidemic is not related to erionite
at all, but is caused by a founder mutation that
has reached a high frequency in this isolated
population. There are several lines of evidence
that argue against this hypothesis. First, the
substantial evidence that erionite is a potent
carcinogen31. Second, such high frequencies
of genetic variation with uniformly high
penetrance would be unlikely to show such
a limited geographical distribution. The
high frequency of disease in certain villages
indicates a local high frequency for the genetic
variation that increases the risk of mesothe-
lioma, approaching 50% for dominant models
and 75% for recessive models. These very high
frequencies are much more plausible when
penetrance for susceptible individuals is high
in the presence of potent carcinogens and low
otherwise, than if penetrance is uniformly
high, as would be expected for a strictly
genetic model of susceptibility (this would be
not expected to be restricted to certain villages
or households, but to be more widespread).
Third, the observation that individuals from
high-risk families, who were born and raised
outside the three villages, seem to revert to a
much lower risk of developing this disease.
In fact, 18 descendants from Family 1, aged
25–45 years, were born and raised outside
the village of old Sarihidir when the village
was abandoned in 1960. No mesotheliomas
have developed in this group, but three cases
were observed in the same age group among
members of Family 1 who were born and
raised in old Sarihidir and therefore exposed
to erionite. Although the numbers are too
small to reach statistical significance and it
might take 20 to 40 more years to fully appre-
ciate the significance of this observation, the
estimated odds ratio between the two groups
is 6.47, and it is consistent with a model of
co-carcinogenicity between genetics and
erionite. Finally, the observation that the same
type of erionite was found in Oregon and in
Cappadocia, highlights the potential risk of
erionite exposure in the developed world.
Our results indicate that genetic back-
ground has a role in determining susceptibil-
ity to mineral fibre carcinogenesis, specifically
to erionite carcinogenesis in Cappadocia.
We propose that the same gene(s) is altered
following erionite and asbestos exposure in
sporadic malignant mesothelioma and we
hope that the isolation of this putative sus-
ceptibility gene(s) will lead to new preventive
and therapeutic strategies that might benefit
Figure 3 | Family 1. A pedigree from old Sarihidir showing a family of 30 members in which 17 died of
mesothelioma (shown by the dark symbols), 4 died of other cancers (B of osteosarcoma, D of leukaemia,
F of prostate cancer, and G of pancreatic cancer), 5 died of reasons other than cancer, (A because of
traffic accidents, C because of an intestinal occlusion, E because of congestive heart failure, and F for
unknown reasons) and 4 are alive (shown by the pale symbols). Five mesotheliomas developed in indi-
viduals who were born outside this family and who married into this family. They were also from mes-
othelioma families. A member of this family, indicated by the asterisk, married into a non-mesothelioma
family and some of the descendants developed mesothelioma.
152 | FEBRUARY 2007 | VOLUME 7
© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
patients in Cappadocia and in the developed
world. N. Cox at the University of Chicago,
and J.R. Testa at the Fox Chase Cancer Center,
have now joined our research team and,
owing to a recently awarded National Cancer
Institute Programme Project, we will perform
genetic linkage analyses to attempt to isolate
this putative gene. The presence of genes that
predispose to mineral fibre carcinogenesis is
supported by recent studies indicating that
specific genetic polymorphisms can modify
the extent of genetic damage caused by
asbestos40 and that certain genetic alterations
seem to increase the susceptibility to asbestos-
induced mesotheliomas41, or are commonly
found in mesothelioma samples 2,42,43.
Moreover, villagers with human leukocyte
antigen type B41, B58 or DR16 might be at a
higher risk of developing mesothelioma44.
And the villagers?
Given the inevitable, but necessarily, slow
progress of our research, we considered vari-
ous possibilities that would bring immediate
help to the villagers.
A new village? I asked whether we could try to
convince the government to build new villages
for Tuzkoy and Karain — new villages built
with bricks and cement that would reduce the
exposure to erionite. Y.I.B. had tried in the
past to generate economic support to build
new villages, but the promises had never
materialized. We agreed that there was little
to lose in trying again. Y.I.B., S.E., A.U.D. and
I addressed the Minister of Health in Ankara
to make our case. We explained the problem,
and made it clear that this problem was well
known to the international scientific commu-
nity, and that by ‘simply’ building new villages
the Turkish government would be saving the
lives of many children. The Turkish Health
Minister agreed and said that the government
would build a new village in Tuzkoy, and,
maybe later, one in Karain. None of us could
believe it. We continued to press the case and
we found an ally in the Office of the Director
of Cancer Control at the Ministry of Health.
In October 2005 when I returned to
Cappadocia after an absence of almost a
year, Y.I.B. and S.E. told me that they had a
surprise for me. When we drove to Tuzkoy
I found 96 new houses under construction,
and in September 2006 a total of 209 new
houses of bricks and cement had been
completed on the hill in front of the village of
Tuzkoy (FIG. 4). The Turkish government had
delivered its promise.
A test for malignant mesothelioma. In
October 2005 I co-authored a paper with
H.I.P. in which we reported his discovery of a
new serum marker for mesothelioma. H.I.P.
found that serum levels of osteopontin are
increased early in the course of the disease45.
Robinson in Australia had reported similar
results for another serum marker called
mesothelin46. After consulting with the
Turkish Health Authorities, it was decided
to prospectively test these serological mark-
ers in the villagers (BOX 4). We have tested
80 healthy villagers over the past 6 months.
The results have been encouraging — we
have already detected two early cases — and
the Governor suggested that we offer the test
to the entire village. Moreover, the Director
for Cancer Control has instructed the local
hospitals to provide free radiology screens to
verify the diagnosis, and to offer free medical
treatment if the diagnosis of mesothelioma
is confirmed. For our part, we are paying
for the costs of the serological tests, which
are carried out by members of my labora-
tory who fly to the Hacettepe University in
Ankara every 3 months.
The villagers have reacted differently
to the news. Some (~50%) have expressed
the desire to be tested, but others believe
that screening is useless until we have some
effective therapy to offer. We think that
early diagnosis and treatment might benefit
patients and at the moment this is all we can
offer. We also know that any medical infor-
mation we discover in Cappadocia — for
example, the value of serum levels of mes-
othelin and osteopontin for early diagnosis,
or the isolation of the mesothelioma gene(s)
— will probably benefit all patients affected
by mesothelioma worldwide.
The new village should open in the sum-
mer of 2007. We, the scientists, certainly did
not build the village; the Turkish government
deserves all the credit for that. But we started
the process by bringing a local problem to the
attention of the international scientific com-
munity first and to the Turkish Government
later. We helped to realize something that
we considered an impossible dream. And
‘we’ certainly includes all the agencies and
not-for-profit associations that funded this
project and made our work possible.
Figure 4 | The new village of Tuzkoy. The new village is built with bricks and cement; the old village
can be seen in the background. The new village should open in the summer of 2007 or as soon as the
roads are covered with asphalt and the sanitation system is completed.
Box 4 | Ethical issues
When we found that mesothelioma was more prevalent in certain families than in others we were
confronted with the dilemma of whether we should inform the families and, if so, how. Moreover,
we needed the blood samples from high-risk mesothelioma family members to try to isolate the
mesothelioma susceptibility gene, and the donors would naturally have asked for their results.
There was also the possibility that the reasons for these tests would have caused further isolation
of these villages, and that in the village high-risk families could be further ostracized. The ethical
dilemmas arising from this work have been handled by M.T., the Director of the Office of Cancer
Control at the Turkish Ministry of Health. Turkish law requires that, to carry out these studies, we
have to report the results to the Office of the Director of Cancer Control, and they will decide what
to do with the data. It is they who coordinate the work of the Turkish physicians and nurses who
inform the villagers of the nature of the test and collect the serum samples. When the sera are
collected we test them at Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey, and report the results to M.T. Any
decision thereafter, including informing the villagers and coordinating (free) medical screening
and therapy if a tumour is detected, is carried out by the Office of the Director of Cancer Control.
This approach has worked very well so far.
A further ethical issue concerns how to manage individuals who might have high levels of
mesothelin and osteopontin, but who have undetectable tumours. M.T. is coordinating a future
chemopreventive clinical trial in villagers thought to be at high risk owing to high levels of these
markers. This chemopreventive trial will use ranpirnase (Onconase; Alfacell Corporation), an RNase
inhibitor that induces apoptosis in mesothelioma cells in tissue culture58, and that has proved
effective in some patients with mesothelioma with minimal side effects59.
NATURE REVIEWS | CANCER
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© 2007 Nature Publishing Group
Michele Carbone is at the Cancer Research Download full-text
Center of Hawaii, Thoracic Oncology Program,
Honolulu, Hawaii 96816, USA.
Salih Emri is at the Department of Pulmonary
Medicine, Murat Tuncer is at the Department of
Hematology and Oncology and Y. Izzettin Baris is
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of
Hacettepe, 06532 Beytepe, Ankara, Turkey.
A. Umran Dogan is at the Department of Geological
Engineering, Ankara University, 06100 Tandogan,
Ankara, Turkey, and at the Department of Chemical and
Biochemical Engineering, University of Iowa,
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Ian Steele is at the Department of Geophysical
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We are grateful to H. Akay (deceased), a surgeon at Ankara
University, for helping us to provide free surgical care to many
patients with mesothelioma; to M. Tunc of Tuzkoy, I. Duru of
Karain, and Y. Ozdogan of Sarihidir for their help in preparing
family pedigrees in these villages; to A. Elmishad and
A. Pannuti for helping us to organize the family pedigrees; to
M. Rdzanek, B. Krocznyska and H. Yang for performing sero-
logical tests at the Hacettepe University in Ankara; to M. Dogan
for assisting A.U.D. in the mineralogical studies; and to
I. Roushdy-Hammady for contributing to the initial pedigrees.
The research project in Cappadocia has been and is funded by
grants to M.C. from the US National Cancer Institute, the
American Cancer Society, the Cancer Research Foundation of
America, the Riviera Country Club of Illinois, the Association
for Research on Asbestos, Mesothelioma and Cancer of Illinois,
and the Mark Butitta Mesothelioma Foundation. The results
and social issues are reported as M.C. saw them developing.
Although the co-authors did not directly participate in the writ-
ing of this paper, they had a vital role in producing the data and
reviewing the accuracy of this manuscript.
Competing interests statement
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
The following terms in this article are linked online to:
ERK1 | ERK2 | NF-κB | TNFα | TNFR1
American Cancer Society:
International Agency for Research on Cancer: www.iarc.fr/
Michele Carbone’s homepage:
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