Gout Caused By Cancer

A rare form of blood cancer that causes dizziness, headaches, and gout has been striking residents of Pennsylvania's Luzerne County. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter helped get funding for a federal study to look into the matter, but so far lots of questions are being generated by the study. Specter, however, is impatient for answers.

Cancer Cluster

The study, which is under the auspices of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), discovered that of the 1,170 people tested, 1.6% were found to have a genetic mutation that is linked with polycythemia vera (PV), the rare blood cancer that seems to have developed into a cluster in the area. The experts think the cancer cluster may have been caused by a Luzerne County hazardous-waste site.

Chief of ATSDR's Health Investigations Branch of its Division of Health Studies Steve Dearwent says that the testing wasn't meant to provide answers but rather was done as "kind of a public service." No one seems sure of the implications of these findings. Dearwent explains, “If that is what we would expect to see or if that is divergent from the norm … that’s something that we are making every effort to help contextualize."

In order to determine whether these findings are normal, ATSDR is funding a study by the Geisinger Health System which will test 6,000 random patients for the genetic mutation. Geisinger has already obtained the blood samples but Dearwent says testing will take a few months.

Gene Mutation

The genetic mutation JAK2 was first discovered in 2004. Since that time, the mutation has been found to be present in 90% of those who have PV. However, only 5 of the 19 people in Luzerne County who tested positive for JAK2 were found to have PV. Those five had medium to high levels of the gene mutation, which is not inherited, but the other 14 people had low levels of JAK2. The participants were told about their own results.

It remains unclear whether all those who have JAK2 will eventually develop PV or whether those with low levels will escape the blood cancer and their JAK2 levels will decline until they have disappeared altogether. The current phase of testing will be the only large-scale JAK2 screening in the United States. A follow-up study is intended to see whether the mutation increases as time goes on. The results of these studies will help determine whether further testing will be needed in those belonging to the suspected cancer cluster. Because PV provokes the production of too many blood cells the rare cancer causes symptoms such as gout, dizziness, and headaches.