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Researchers have discovered an unusually high amount of overactive immune systems among people in Libby, and UM researcher Jean Pfau wants to know why.
Pfau had read previous studies on asbestos that showed exposed subjects had high levels of antinuclear antibodies — antibodies that attack cells in the body — and wondered if there would also be a higher prevalence in Libby residents who had asbestos exposure compared to a population that did not.
Pfau decided to research the matter and began by acquiring blood samples from 50 volunteers in Libby. She matched these patients by age and gender with 50 Missoula volunteers to compare the data. What she found is Libby residents are 20 percent more likely to have buildup of antinuclear antibodies. Her research was published in the January 2005 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.
In autoimmune diseases, ANAs cause clumping of proteins or damage to tissue. In turn, the ANAs build up, causing inflammation. Lupus and scleroderma are both diseases caused by ANAs.
“In a self-reported survey more people reported these diseases than what would be expected in a normal population,” Pfau says.
There is no known cure for ridding the body of ANAs in an overactive immune system, but there is medication to calm and slow the buildup process, as well as anti-inflammatory drugs people can take.
It is likely ANA-related problems come from a exposure to a variety of factors. “These complex diseases are not likely to have just one cause,” Pfau says. While asbestos is one stimulator, genetics and smoking also can increase the likelihood of ANA-linked health problems.
Pfau says she thinks this study is the beginning of research that can be done to see if ANAs trigger build-up leading to disease in other environmentally contaminated areas. Pfau says because people face a lot of other exposures, such as inhaling toxins, it would make sense that damage-causing ANAs could be triggered by environmental sources other than asbestos.
“Because of the appearance that these diseases are increasing in prevalence, we don’t know for sure, but it makes sense that ANAs can trigger in the body from other environmental situations,” Pfau says.
Next, Pfau is going to study the genetic contributions of autoimmune diseases. She also plans to research mesothelioma — lung cancer from exposure to asbestos — to see if it has any links to autoimmunity.
“Libby is a community really coming together,” Pfau says. “I want to stress that we do basic research here. We don’t do clinical research.” She says her research is done through coded blood tests, and she is not a doctor, so she cannot diagnose people. Instead her research is translated into results that can eventually help them.
Libby residents concerned they may have an asbestos-related ANA disease can contact a state agency called the Montana Asbestos Screening and Surveillance Activity. Or they can go online to http://www.umt.edu/libbyhealth.