Smoking research involves local group

April 06, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Washington County has made another contribution to public health: Local residents took part in a study examining the link between genetics and smoker-related illnesses.

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The research drew upon information from a study group that already has produced hundreds of scientific papers.

In the latest study, researchers examined 1,290 people to determine whether a gene already linked to smoking illnesses increased the risk of heart disease. About a quarter of those people came from Washington County.

Researchers discovered that smokers with the GSTT1 gene had about a 180 percent greater risk of heart disease than nonsmokers, according to study co-author James Pankow, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Smokers without the gene, however, had only a 60 percent greater risk.

"Among people who don't smoke, the gene seems to make no difference in heart disease," Pankow said.

The findings grew out of a long-term study of a group of volunteers that has been producing scientific knowledge since the late 1980s.


The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Washington, D.C., selected 16,000 men and women from ages 45 to 64 to participate in ARIC - the Atherosclerosis Research In Communities.

The institute chose 4,000 volunteers each from four communities. In addition to Washington County, the other areas were Jackson, Miss., Forsyth County in North Carolina and the suburbs of Minneapolis.

Johns Hopkins University, which was one of the agencies that submitted an application, chose Washington County.

George W. Comstock, who at the time worked for the Washington County Health Department and works for Johns Hopkins University, helped put together the application. He said Washington County was a good location.

"Years ago, we were classified as being no ways peculiar, which is a fancy way of saying we're a normal community," said Comstock, who lives in Boonsboro.

The county benefited because of its experience as a test county for other health studies.

"There had been a long history of population-based epidemiological studies in that area," Pankow said. "It seemed like a perfect fit."

The participants in Washington County were selected randomly from driving records. The sample was augmented by a random selection of people who filled out a health census conducted by the Washington County Health Department in 1975.

Comstock said researchers discovered 15 percent of county residents did not have a driver's license.

Using only those with driver's licenses would have missed one in every six residents, Comstock said.

Ironically, the driver's license question on the form had nothing to do with health considerations. Comstock said the Health Department included it as a favor to officials who wanted to assess demand for bus service.

"As it turned out, it helped us later, too," he said.

The sample group was intentionally random, with age the only criteria.

"This is people in the community. They were not selected because they were sick or had any particular condition," said Javier Nieto, a professor in the School of Public Health at Hopkins.

Participants underwent a thorough examination and filled out a lengthy questionnaire.

Researchers called the participants once each year and re-examined them every three years.

The information collected has given researchers numerous clues about heart disease and stroke, said Nieto, who is the principal investigator of the project for Hopkins.

Nieto said researchers will continue following the group until at least 2005. It could go longer if the institute continues funding the work, he said.

A health study that began in 1950 in Framingham, Mass., is still going on, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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