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The search for clues continues for the area's ocular melanoma cases.

HUNTERSVILLE – While university research on ocular melanoma (OM) continues – and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiles data related to the rare eye cancer – debate about the best next investigative step to take in north Mecklenburg continues.

At the Dec. 14 meeting of an advisory committee created to coordinate efforts to learn more about the region’s statistically high occurrence rate of OM, some participants endorsed continued clinical work to probe the medical mystery while others backed a “boots on the ground” approach involving environmental testing.

Lab and agency action

At the meeting, committee members Dr. Michael Brennan, a retired ophthalmologist, and Sara Lovett, epidemiologist with the Mecklenburg County Health Department, delivered updates on in-progress research.

Brennan said a large-scale tumor tissue and genome analysis – with samples from eight local OM patients included – was progressing at Columbia University. Brennan said he expected initial findings from the search for tissue or gene mutation similarities to be available by February.

Brennan said the tumor tissue and gene testing could provide vital information about possible links between OM patients and how the cancer evolves, which would be a major step toward developing treatments. He said in addition to compiling data about the cancer, the high-profile study at Columbia and a similar project at Miami University involving tissue from OM patients with connections to Auburn University in Alabama, are generating more interest about the rare cancer in medical and research fields.

The CDC is now among the places showing enhanced interest. Lovett, who wants the CDC to provide input on a geospatial study of local patients, said the agency has authorized a staff member to collect information and analyze trends pertaining to OM..

Lovett said CDC feedback could help determine the next phase of local research. “They are equipped and have the expertise,” she said. And she added involvement in a growing push for an enhanced OM registry could also be a productive use of local resources.

Environmental emphasis

But there were also renewed calls for environmental testing. Kenny Colbert, whose 23-year-old daughter Kenan died from complications of OM in 2014, told the committee he supported genetic and clinical research efforts, but felt more could be done.

“We went down the list. We took a methodical approach,” Colbert said. “Maybe now we need to lobby the state, join forces with them, get more money and do multiple things at one time.”

He acknowledged environmental testing had been avoided because there are no known elemental links to OM. But, he added, “Maybe we just haven’t found it yet.”

Committee member Rob Kidwell agreed. “We don’t know unless we try,” Kidwell said in supporting environmental evaluations. “If nothing else, it could eliminate something as a factor.”

Local resident Melissa Kennelly also spoke up. Referencing regional uncertainties about coal ash, electrical transmission lines and ongoing research into elevated thyroid cancer cases in southern Iredell County. Kennelly said physical testing seemed like a logical step.

“I don’t know how we can’t do environmental testing,” she said.

Committee members agreed to pursue CDC feedback while also seeking advice on environmental options. The committee meets next on Feb. 22, when Brennan hopes to have news from the Columbia research.

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