HUNTERSVILLE – Renewed consideration of environmental testing combined with enhanced communication with county, state and national health agencies are two steps recommended by a committee tasked with directing future investigation of the statistically high occurrence rate of ocular melanoma (OM) in north Mecklenburg and the surrounding area.
The regional committee, formed by Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, held its first meeting Friday, May 18, at town hall with the goal of determining the best use of funds remaining from a state research grant the town received in 2016. After a two-hour session, which included input from several area residents, the group opted to focus on basic environmental evaluations and to share all available information with – and seek advice from – state health officials and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The committee also agreed to continue working with ophthalmology and oncology specialists throughout the state and nation galvanized into a united network through the efforts of Dr. Michael Brennan.
Brennan, a retired ophthalmologist from Burlington who’s been the volunteer coordinator of a multi-faceted OM research effort for the last three years, is a member of the new committee along with N.C. Sen. Jeff Tarte from Cornelius and Mecklenburg County Health Department Epidemiologist Sara Lovett. Aneralla and commissioners Mark Gibbons, Melinda Bales and Nick Walsh along with Interim Town Manager Jackie Huffman and former commissioner Rob Kidwell are Huntersville representatives. Cornelius Commissioner Dr. Michael Miltich and local oncologist Dr. John Powderly are also committee members.
New approach to learn more
Aneralla asked the committee members to determine the best next steps to take to learn more about OM cases in the region. With genetic counseling, blood tests and geospatial analysis completed, and some funds set aside to contribute toward a comprehensive tissue study ongoing at Columbia University, there is approximately $27,000 remaining from the $100,000 state grant.
No direct expenditures were authorized at the group’s session, but Huffman was asked to reconnect with the Charlotte-based Hart-Hickman environmental research firm as a preliminary step toward possible soil and/or water testing in the region. Hart-Hickman, first for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and later for the town, did site reviews of locations in Huntersville and an analysis of historical documents, but to date no actual samples have been collected and examined.
In addition, Huffman was also asked to set up a discussion between Tim Kopacz, who is the electric systems manager for ElectriCities of North Carolina, and Huntersville resident Pellervo Kaskinen. Kaskinen, a retired electrical engineer, has partnered with Georgia-based environmental engineer and activist Stewart Simonson to compile information about power transmission lines in areas highlighted in the OM geospatial analysis. Their report was recently shared online and fueled some community support for efforts to gather additional details.
“We have seen some reports that have been alarming,” area resident Melissa Kennelly said during public comments at the committee meeting. “After seeing some studies and findings, I want to see where things are going.”
Huntersville resident Lauren Lowry, who helped organize a previous community meeting about the OM mystery, shared a similar view.
“Our goal is to explore this stuff,” Lowry said. “There are a lot of concerns. Let's look at this and, if something is wrong, fix it.”
Tarte described Lowry's suggestion as “spot on.” He added “That is exactly what this committee should do.”
Aneralla also acknowledged community concerns in endorsing local tests.
“I think it would make everyone feel a lot better if we did basic environmental testing,” he said.
Lovett, who has been in touch with Brennan throughout the research process, said she would like to review the recent studies and compile as much information as possible to share with state health officials and the CDC. She also reminded members of the committee that answers are rare in most medical investigations.
“There can be associations (links to patients), but it is very difficult to show causation,” Lovett said. “The more you study associations, the more strength there is toward identifying causations. But I'd like to look at the overlapping studies.”
The group plans to meet again when findings from the large-scale tissue and genome sequencing research project at Columbia, which includes samples from local patients, are available for review. That research is now expected to be a collaborative effort involving Columbia’s Dr. Richard Carvajal and Dr. William Harbour at the University of Miami. Brennan told members of the committee he expected initial information from the research to be available by August.