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Research project looks at leukemia cluster

Becky Bosshart

A top cancer biologist chosen to study genetic links in the Fallon leukemia cluster said Wednesday she is eager to meet the families and begin her investigation into the cluster.

Dr. Jill James, a biologist at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, said her study will expand on the federal and state leukemia cluster investigation, which concluded this year.

James was awarded $223,500 from the Environmental Protection Agency. She will start by meeting with the case families in the next few months to explain the purpose of the study and answer questions. In the Fallon leukemia cluster, 16 children have been diagnosed since 1997, and three have died. It’s been nearly two years since the last case was added.

She is interested in studying how a child’s genetic makeup might increase his or her vulnerability to DNA damage from elements in Fallon’s drinking water, and whether this could increase the child’s risk of leukemia. Those metals include arsenic, antimony, tungsten and cobalt.

“Our work is made possible through the generosity and commitment of Sen. (Harry) Reid and his concern for families in Fallon,” James said. “This is in response to them (the families) wanting more individual attention.”

Sen. Reid, D-Nev., said James was chosen because of her reputation with researching arsenic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s leukemia cluster investigation found 80 percent of the leukemia case families and control subjects had elevated levels of tungsten in urine samples. Only one person in 10 does nationally. High levels of several other metals were also found in the Fallon subjects. The investigation’s expert panel, which released its final report in February, said the results did not explain the cause of the leukemia cluster, but it also said it was not a chance occurrence.

James said she hopes to interview and take blood samples from the 13 case children and their mothers. She will have two control groups, one from Fallon and another from Arkansas. The Arkansas control group is important, she said, because they will have no exposure to any of the metals in the Fallon environment.

Brenda Gross, mother of Dustin, 8, who was diagnosed with arsenic-related leukemia in April 1999, said she hopes to get involved.

“As far as her research, I am excited about it,” Gross said. “I think it will be very good, and I hope I can help and do whatever I can to assist her.”

James said her study is unique because she will focus on each individual. “The CDC gave us a clue of what metals to look at. Now we are expanding and building on what the CDC did.”

Even though the CDC concluded that no single metal exposure could explain an increased risk of cancer, James is considering that the combined exposure to several of the metals that are known to damage DNA could be cumulative and trigger the disease.

James said her hypothesis is that genetic susceptibility factors in the mothers and the children with cancer could interact with nutritional deficiencies and the metal exposures, which may all contribute to the chances of acute lymphocytic leukemia.

“The main thing is I’m excited to start and meet the parents and work with them because it will take a lot of their participation for it to work,” she said.

The grant will be funneled through the University of Nevada, Reno. UNR will provide administrative services for EPA funds, and research will be conducted at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute.