HUNTERSVILLE – A regional committee overseeing efforts to find answers, or at least uncover clues, related to the region’s statistically high number of ocular melanoma (OM) cases has agreed to use funds remaining from a state research grant to finance environmental testing.
At their June 14 meeting, banking on $5,580 in supplemental support from Mecklenburg County, committee members backed a plan to spend up to $15,000 on a basic three-phase, four-location soil analysis protocol proposed by the Hart & Hickman environmental consulting firm.
The town received a $100,000 state research grant in 2016. Since grant expenditures began in 2017, more than $90,000 has been spent or committed for various research efforts.
Funds have been used for a historical environmental analysis by Hart & Hickman, a comprehensive geospatial analysis and study of patient movements and histories provided by Pennsylvania-based Geodesy Inc. and a range of patient and family member blood and genetic tests conducted by Invitae Corp. in Charlotte.
The town has also pledged $45,000 from the grant to help support a comprehensive OM-targeted tumor tissue and gene-analysis research project in progress at Columbia University in New York. Tissue from eight area patients – from a group of two dozen OM cases with north Mecklenburg connections found since 2001 – has been included in the Columbia project, which is searching for genetic or mutation similarities that could lead to advancements in OM detection, diagnostic and treatment.
Initial findings from the Columbia study – an evaluation of OM patient genome sequences involving billions of compilations and calculations – are expected later this summer, according to committee member Dr. Michael Brennan, a retired ophthalmologist who has helped coordinate interaction between local research efforts and national and international medical professionals and researchers.
Long-sought soil tests
When the first data from the Columbia study is available, Hart & Hickman may be well into its anticipated four-to-eight week process of gathering and evaluating environmental samples from four separate sites in Huntersville.
Since the push for local research began, many of the patients, families and local officials engaged in the effort have supported environmental testing as a logical part of the process of finding – or ruling out – potential factors related to the OM cases. And with multiple patient biographical and medical data collection steps completed or in progress, the committee authorized Hart & Hickman to proceed.
At the meeting, Hart & Hickman’s Matt Bramblett said the company proposes to collect soil samples at four locations: Hopewell High School (where three women in the local patient pool attended) on Beatties Ford Road in southwestern Huntersville, Stephens Road Nature Preserve in western Huntersville, North Mecklenburg Park off N.C. 115 in northern Huntersville and Huntersville Fire Station No. 3 on Eastfield Road in eastern Huntersville.
Bramblett said soil will be collected from three areas at each location and samples will be examined to detect the presence of around 200 elements in three categories: volatile compounds, semi-volatile compounds and heavy metals.
The “long list of volatile compounds,” according to Bramblett, includes petroleum-based elements and solvents. The semi-volatile category, scientifically referenced as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), includes 68 compounds including all aspects of coal residue. The extensive list of heavy metals includes lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
Bramblett, who said the general approach to soil sampling was recommended since there is no specific element or compound known to have a direct link to OM, added that soil pH levels would also be evaluated and the tests would follow all standards applied by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
Bramblett proposed collecting samples at a depth of 1 foot – “You look at the top 1 foot because that’s where the exposure is,” he said – but in response to comments from some committee members he said borings down to three feet could be performed at no additional cost.
While the last of the town’s 2016 research grant – obtained through the efforts of then-N.C. Senator Jeff Tarte – is now committed to environmental testing, more funding may be on the horizon.
At the committee meeting, N.C. Sen. Natasha Marcus and N.C. Rep. Christy Clark provided updates on efforts to include a new $100,000 research grant in the state budget. The state Senate included Marcus’ request for funding in its budget package, but budget debates in the House are continuing.
“It’s currently in the budget,” Marcus said, “but anything could happen.”
Clark, a Huntersville resident, said the OM “issue is extremely important to me” and, she joined Marcus and Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla – who formed the OM committee last year – in urging residents to reach out to legislators to urge support for the funding.
Another evolving OM-related issue involves the N.C. Policy Collaboratory. In April, the Senate approved a bill introduced by Sen. Vicki Sawyer from Iredell County (and supported by Marcus) instructing the Collaboratory to assemble a research group that could lay the foundation for a statewide evaluation and potential investigation of cancer outbreaks supervised by the University of North Carolina system.
A report on that process is expected before the end of the year.