Queensland researchers are leading a global race to treat rising numbers of silicosis, commonly acquired from exposure to silica-containing materials while working with engineered stone products.
The world-first treatment has been created by doctors at the Prince Charles Hospital, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Queensland. The treatment involves treating the presence of residual silica dust in the lungs, which is what leads to the internal scarring which can result in the lungs failing.
“Normally bacteria in the lungs are fought off by the immune system, but silica crystals don’t break down like bacteria,” TPCH’s Head of Lung Fibrosis Research Professor Dan Chambers said.
“This causes the immune system to go into overdrive, leading to lung inflammation and scarring. This simply means that the lungs cease to function properly, and people cannot breathe.”
The treatment, dubbed a ‘lung lavage’ works to wash out the silica dust and crystals, along with damaged cells in the lungs. The initial step involves opening up the patient’s lungs and calculating the amount of dust crystals, or the ‘crystal load’ to determine whether they’re suitable for the treatment.
Once the doctors have a sufficient understanding of the extent of the damage, they ‘rinse out’ the lungs with warm saline, a process that can take up to four hours. During this time, one lung is left without treatment, allowing the patient to breathe, before a break, and the treatment is applied to the other lung.
“This is effectively like the rinse cycle on your washing machine,” Professor Dan Chambers said.
So far, six patients have undergone the treatment and all have recovered well. One patient explained that the treatment had been ‘life-changing’ for him.
“Just knowing that horrible stuff is not inside me anymore is just such a relief, I’m not stressed about it anymore. My mental load has been lifted,” he said.
“Being given a death sentence was a shock, I basically shut down. Having this procedure has truly changed my life, I can’t thank everyone enough.”
Professor Dan Chambers explained that there is hope for the increasing number of workers diagnosed annually.
“We’ve seen silicosis mostly in young people, some as young as 25 years old, so it’s critical to help them and help them fast. This has been a race against the clock since once scarring occurs it may be too late to remove the silica,” Professor Chambers said.
“Early detection and treatment is key so that the disease does not progress into the more advanced form – progressive massive fibrosis. We encourage any tradespeople to get screened so that treatment can begin as early as possible.”
According to the Cancer Council, approximately 1% of Australian workers who are exposed to silicosis will develop lung cancer over their lives, directly related to that exposure.