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Local volunteers help advance medical science

February 16, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

In 1989, more than 25,000 Washington County residents gave samples of their blood to a Johns Hopkins research program as part of a study called Clue II.

The components of their blood - plasma, red and white blood cells - have been stored, and, years later, researchers can look at and measure concentrations of nutrients, proteins and hormones in the samples to see if they provide clues to what protects against certain diseases, according to a Jan. 2003 Clue II newsletter.

The study, named for the campaign slogan "Give Us a Clue to Cancer and Heart Disease," is ongoing as volunteers continue to help by completing and returning follow-up questionnaires.

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A study, published in the Feb. 4 Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that high levels of a protein linked to heart attacks also might be an early warning sign of colon cancer.

The C-reactive protein, or CRP, is produced in the liver in response to infection or inflammation anywhere in the body. Doctors have come to believe that high levels of CRP in the blood raise the risk of heart attack by damaging blood vessel walls.

This particular study asked the question: Do people who develop colon cancer have higher levels of the inflammation marker CRP?

A marker is something that can be measured with a blood test, says Dr. Kathy Helzlsouer, the study's principal investigator and professor in the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the study, which used Clue II information gathered through 2000 to look at CRP in the blood samples of 514 Washington County residents, those with the highest levels of CRP appeared more than twice as likely to develop colon cancer over an 11-year period as those with the lowest CRP levels.

Researchers looked at data from 172 people with colon cancer, and 342 controls - Clue II participants who had not developed colon cancer.

The data support the hypothesis that inflammation is a risk factor for the development of colon cancer in people of average risk for the disease, according to the study abstract on the journal Web site at jama.ama-assn.org.

Although the observational study results are not the final word on the connection between the protein and cancer - the results need to be duplicated by additional studies - another piece of the medical research puzzle has been put in place.

The study results demonstrate that individuals - local people, in this case - have a great impact on medicine, says Sandra Hoffman, associate director at Johns Hopkins Training Center for Public Health Research in Hagers-town.

"We really appreciate their participation," says Helzlsouer.

Since the first Clue study in 1974, Johns Hopkins researchers have developed more than 50 studies based on information from Clue participants.

Funding is in place to continue Clue II for another couple of years. And there are plenty of uses for the information. Currently, in a National Institute on Aging funded study, Clue II is looking at genetic susceptibilty to cancer as well as genetic-environmental interactions, Hoffman says.

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