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Researchers look at autoimmune problems

| September 15, 2004 12:00 AM

By Roger Morris, Western News Publisher

Researchers from the University of Montana want to study a possible link between asbestos exposure and autoimmune response, and possibly disease, in Libby residents.

Dr. Jean Pfau from the Center for Environmental Health Sciences gave a brief presentation at Thursday night¹s Community Advisory Group meeting in the Ponderosa room.

She wants to see if there is a relationship between asbestos exposure and development of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Pfau said that epidemiological studies have shown an association between silica exposure and several autoimmune diseases.

In the 2000-2001 screening of 7,307 Libby area residents, 494 people or 6.7 percent said they had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, Pfau noted. Typically, that percentage should be less than 1 percent, she said.

³So it there a really high incidence of autoimmune disease in Libby?² she asked. ³We want to ask that question.²

She said that 35 percent of those same people had a higher rate of lung abnormalities on their x-rays.

³Could there be a relationship between autoimmunity and lung disease?² Pfau asked. ³Could it be exacerbating the scarring in the lungs?²

Autoimmune response is when an individual¹s immune system begins attacking that person¹s cells or tissues. Autoimmune disease is the ³pathology² resulting from or associated with autoimmune responses, Pfau explained.

³We¹d like to confirm the diagnosis of autoimmune diseases,² she said.

Pfau and her colleagues have applied for a coupe of grants to conduct such studies on the Libby population of asbestos victims and others.

Blood studies have shown Libby residents compared to Missoula residents have a higher than average autoimmune response antibodies in their cells, she said.

Presently, their research goals would be:

• To confirm autoimmune diagnoses in Libby and determine whether asbestos exposure is associated with increased development of autoimmune disease.

• Determine whether autoimmune disease is associated with the severity or incidence of asbestosis.

• Do a study to correlate autoimmunity with disease progression and whether that is genetic or caused by something else.

• Determine whether the autoimmune antibodies affect fibrosis activity contributing to lung disease.

³What we will need from the people of Libby is to participate in the study,² Pfau said. ³It will lead us to more information that could be used to help the community.²

She said for their study they would need a population of people with autoimmune disease and a population without the disease.

³We¹d like to see if people have an autoimmune disease before they have an asbestos-related disease,² said epidemiologist Curtiss Noonan.