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Cancer Cluster: Tracking a Killer in Nevada

By Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Science Cafe | March 9, 2007

An environment rife with arsenic, tungsten, cobalt and jet fuel does not seem adequate to explain an unusually high incidence of childhood leukemia -- three deaths and 16 cases in all -- that first struck Fallon, Nevada, almost a decade ago. Despite a major public health investigation launched by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no smoking weapon of a caliber sufficient to account for the cluster has been found.

Still, driven by lingering pain and frustration, affected families in this rural town -- 60 miles east of Reno on a stretch of US Highway 50 dubbed "the Loneliest Road in America" -- are determined that the search continue.

UCSF molecular epidemiologist Joseph Wiemels, PhD, is one of three scientists recently awarded new research grants to study the Fallon cluster. Local families had a hand in moving politicians to appropriate the money and, along with the usual scientist "peers," in deciding which research proposals to support.

Not content to round up the usual toxic suspects, Wiemels will be looking for clues in past weather patterns and for viral traces in human DNA. He is even eyeing a massive radiofrequency transmitter.

That may sound offbeat, but Wiemels is acknowledged as a mainstream expert on the origins of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the type of leukemia diagnosed in all but one of the children in the Fallon cluster. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, he has investigated both prenatal and postnatal causes of the disease. Most notably, Wiemels has found associations between variant forms of enzymes that metabolize folic acid and specific leukemia-causing genetic defects in infants, and he has discovered that several leukemia-inducing mutations occur before birth.

Read more at Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Science Cafe