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James W. Sewall


Research explores link between cancer and the environment

(Report by Keith McKeen for MPBN Radio, Bangor, Maine--15 December 2008)

Someday physicians may be able to treat cancer patients by first examining their medical backgrounds and environmental histories.  At least that's the goal of research now under way at the recently established Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health, headquartered in the city of Brewer.  The Institute's director claims that rural Maine is an ideal location to explore the relationship between cancer genes and risk factors in the environment.

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Doctor Janet Hock says her research team is hoping to answer vital questions about the regional variation of cancer. For example, why are breast cancer rates low in Aroostook County while overall cancer rates in Maine are highest in Washington County?  "And then once you understand that, one can start to direct health care where it's needed and individualize the treatment," Hock says.  "So for instance, if you come from a home maybe that's high in radon and high in arsenic, the drugs you're treated with and the dosage of those drugs you're given may have to be modified taking into account your environment."

So it's not simply whether you live in an area with high radon or with lead in the water, but what Hock calls the "interplay" between genes and the environment.  And there's a reason, she says, why Maine is a good place to find answers.  "Maine is this wonderful, rural state with no major towns to contaminate the environments.  If you've got towns, you've got a whole lot of enviornmental pollutants that you can't characterize, you can't describe.  By having this very spread out territory, where you've got the blueberries in one place, forestry in another and fishing in another you can actually separate out all these different environments."     

The Institute maintains a cancer tissue bank, which includes waste tissues from surgically removed tumors donated by cancer patients.  It's also creating a geographic information system that includes a patient's exposures over the years to elements in the environment.  That requires mapping areas of radiation and arsenic along with pollutants such as herbicides and pesticides that have been used over the years.  That's where the Old Town-based James W. Sewall Company plays a role.  The engineering, forestry and aerial photography company is helping to integrate various information systems, including the present and former locations where the cancer patients have spent time. 

"Where they are and how they've moved around, and in particular their relationship to various kinds of chemicals that might be in the environment for whatever reason," says company CEO James Page. "The use of spatial data--geospatial data--is going to be increasingly important for all these kinds of studies because it really does give the researchers and the doctors hard data by which to do their tracking."

Doctor Larry Beauregard is as pleased as anyone about the research project.  A geneticist who's worked at Eastern Maine Medical Center and Eastern Maine HealthCare Systems since 1975, Beauregard is a cancer survivor himself.  "About 18 months ago, I was diagnosed myself with prostate cancer and I had the advantage of being directly involved in our cancer treatment and management community. And I had surgery and now I'm about 18 months out and everything is looking pretty good," he says.

Beauregard's environmental history may or may not have affected the treatment of his own case.  But he says from the perspective of both a researcher and cancer survivor, he believes that the "road to success" has to include close collaboration among everyone involved.  "The investigators, the clinicians, and perhaps most importantly, the patients--our patient population.  Because patients are really the true source of the information that we're looking for here."

The Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health launched the research project with an award of nearly two million dollars from the US Department of Defense.


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