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WTC first responders have higher frequency of gene mutations linked to cancer

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WTC first responders have higher frequency of gene mutations linked to cancer
First responders exposed to dust and gases at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have higher levels of genetic mutations associated with blood cancers, a new study has found. File Photo by Monika Graff/UPI | License Photo

March 7 (UPI) -- First responders who worked at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have higher levels of genetic mutations linked with leukemia and other blood cancers, a study published Monday by Nature Medicine found.

Among more than 480 firefighters and others who worked at Ground Zero following the attacks and were exposed to toxic dust and gases due to the collapse of the Twin Towers were found to have clonal hematopoiesis, the data showed.

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This is two to three times more than was seen in firefighters who did not work at the site, the researchers said.

Clonal hematopoiesis is characterized by mutations in blood cells associated with smoking and exposure to toxic substances that impact genes, according to the researchers.

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It is associated with a higher risk for developing leukemia and other health problems, including heart attacks, asthma and diabetes, they said.

"People with these genetic mutations are at higher risk for developing leukemia down the road," study co-author Dr. Amit Verma told UPI via Zoom.

"But more than that, they are also at higher risk for inflammation-associated diseases, like heart disease, so there are significant health implications here," said Verma, director of the division of hemato-oncology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

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Based on their findings, Verma and his colleagues would like to see the WTC Health Program incorporate genetic testing similar to that used in the study into its offerings so that those at risk can be screened for these diseases.

More than 20 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, people living and working in and around lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center was located, are still experiencing health problems, including high rates of cancer and autoimmune disorders, according to the WTC Health Program.

Exposure to air pollution in general has been linked with various health problems, from heart disease and breathing disorders to dementia, research suggests.

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Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart in 2019 helped push Congress to make funding of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent, specifically because of the growing health concerns of first responders with illnesses related to the terrorist attacks.

For this study, Verma and his colleagues analyzed blood samples collected from 481 WTC-exposed first responders and 255 non-exposed firefighters.

They focused on 237 genes frequently mutated in leukemia and other blood malignancies, they said.

The genetic sequencing used in the study is expensive and may not be covered by most health insurers, hence the need for the WTC Health Program to get involved, according to Verma.

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"Cancer takes a long time to become manifest," said Verma, who is also a professor of medicine and developmental and molecular biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

"Twenty years is really the time when we see tumors develop following an exposure, so identifying those who are at risk" can enable earlier diagnosis and treatment, he said.

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