Budget cuts to programs aimed at protecting people from toxic exposure, investigating climate change, and accelerating scientific discoveries continue to raise concerns. Fortunately, there are also some amazing scientific developments on the horizon that should make us all hopeful. But first, the bad news, because it’s important to keep on top of issues that impact our lives.
9/11, the National Science Foundation, the EPA, and other cutbacks
At a press conference on Capitol Hill Monday, March 5, comedian Jon Stewart criticized lawmakers for trying to reduce healthcare support for patients, including myeloma patients impacted by the 9/11 toxic exposure. As I have discussed in the past, there has been an increased occurrence of myeloma following 9/11 exposures, and the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act has provided funding for crucial testing, monitoring, and treatment.
At a point when more cases can be expected and certainly more (not less) funding will be required, action is proposed to cut the program’s budget from $335 million to $200 million. Myeloma patients may need to join other advocates to push for funding that is morally necessary and essential for appropriate ongoing care.
In a similar vein, it is very sad to see the announced closure of all overseas offices for the National Science Foundation (NSF), a longstanding government agency that fosters international research, collaborations, and academic exchange programs. As one NSF special advisor, William Chang, says, “It’s really a shock. There is just no reason to cut back what has been a highly successful program.”
And then there is the action by the EPA to merge (basically, eliminate) its science office. The National Center for Environmental Research (NCER)—largely known for its premier STAR (Science To Achieve Results) program, which focused on discovering and reducing toxic health risks for children—will no longer exist. Examples of toxic exposures STAR has studied include lead and fire retardants, which are also linked to the causation of myeloma.
Another EPA program slated for elimination is IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System), which has been studying the higher risk of cancer in the so-called “cancer alley,” a five-census-tract area around a neoprene plant in Louisiana. Neoprene is used to produce rubbery material in wet suits, computer sleeves, and many other products. The risk of cancer in this area of Louisiana is 700 times the national average. In November, the Senate moved to eliminate funding for IRIS.
As we investigate the causes of MGUS (monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance) and myeloma as part of the iStopMM project in Iceland, we are learning that early toxic exposure—during late adolescence and early adulthood—may be key. Thus, the cancellation of such successful programs as STAR and IRIS is both a severe disappointment and a step in the wrong direction.
The good news is that despite cutbacks and a schizophrenic approach to climate change within the government, positive things are still happening and possible. Our planet is resilient and, as the following news items demonstrate, the nations of the world are not to be deterred.
For example, scientists recently reconstructed the DNA sequence from a New Zealand little bush moa bird that has been extinct for 700 years. This amazing achievement moves science closer to the goal of bringing back lost species. Given the current concerns about climate change, this type of scientific advance may come none too soon!
Then there is the recent report showing that polar bears became extinct in eastern Canada 3.75 billion years ago. Obviously, they have made a great comeback, and now with new technology, de-extinction programs can move into high gear.
Speaking of Canada, the Canadian government has just increased funding for science by $3.1 billion in that country’s 2018 budget, including significant funding for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This is a positive step and reflects the international consensus that science really matters. A new study from Quebec, Canada has uncovered important interactions between toxic exposures in the environment and underlying genetic variations. Local environmental factors can override individual genetic ancestry. Another study, done with broad international collaboration, illustrates the impact of environmental factors specifically upon the immune system. The behavior of mature B cells and plasma cells (and hence, myeloma cells) is very much influenced by environmental factors rather than genetic factors. This means that the exposure factors noted above affect cell-growth patterns in myeloma.
It is also exciting to learn about new ways that cells communicate throughout the body. In another new multinational study, tiny (nano) particles have been shown to be shed by cancer cells. These particles travel in the bloodstream and increase the likelihood of cancer cells spreading to other sites in the body. Obviously, this process of nanoparticle shedding becomes a new target for treatment strategies for the future, including for myeloma.
So, despite the black clouds that seem to loom large these days, it is important to remain positive and assertive about what can be achieved and what is still being achieved!
Dr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.