2009.07.25 – Agency urges test for rare blood cancer


2007.07.25 – Agency urges test for rare blood cancer

Published: July 25, 2009

A federal agency is encouraging people living in Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties to have a sample of their blood tested to determine whether they have been exposed to whatever is causing an unusually high incidence of a rare blood disorder.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirmed in August 2008 that a statistically significant number of people living around the area of Ben Titus Road in Rush Township between Hazleton and Tamaqua have been diagnosed with polycythemia vera, or PV, a disorder that causes bone marrow to produce too many red blood cells.

Because the same study identified two smaller, but still statistically significant, clusters of the disorder – one south of Frackville and one near Jim Thorpe – anyone living within the “greater hot zone area” is urged to participate in the blood sample testing.

The hot zones, according to Joseph Murphy, a native of the Carbon County village of Hauto and a member of the study’s Community Action Group, do not have absolute boundaries. The zones are general areas radiating 10 to 20 miles or more from the center of the confirmed cluster areas.

“Its not just about people who live along Route 309 from Tamaqua to Hazleton,” Murphy said.

Murphy and representatives of the ATSDR are working to distribute fact sheets on the JAK2 blood test and PV to pharmacies, post offices, grocery stores and other public places in various hot zone communities including Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, Frackville, Ashland, Girardville, Schuylkill Haven, Orwigsburg, Freeland, White Haven, Conyngham, Drums, Jim Thorpe, Lansford, Nesquehoning and Palmerton.

The test will screen for a genetic marker called JAK2, which researchers have identified as a possible indicator of PV. Hundreds have already registered to have their blood tested.

The ATSDR has established blood testing centers at the Schuylkill Mall, Frackville, St. Jerome Church, Tamaqua, and Hazleton General Hospital.

Blood samples will be collected Aug. 3 through 6 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and again Aug. 10 through 13. Evening appointments are also available.

Due to the large number of people who have made appointments for the blood test since the availability was announced July 9, Murphy said plans are under way to organize an additional round of testing in October.

While funding for the current round of blood tests will provide free testing for approximately 350 people, Murphy said there is no cut-off date to call for an appointment. If more than 350 people register for the current test, their names will be added to a list for testing in October.

Although scientists generally believe the incubation period for PV and other cancers is 10 to 20 years, prompting the ATSDR to urge people age 40 and older to undergo the blood test, Murphy stressed that everyone in the hot zones is urged to get the test regardless of age.

“The majority of people diagnosed with PV are over the age of 40, more so over 60, but there are people in their 20s being diagnosed, so we are urging everyone to take advantage of this opportunity for JAK2 testing,” Murphy said.

By taking the test, residents can learn if they carry the JAK2 marker, even if they have no symptoms of illness.

According to the ATSDR, researchers discovered the JAK2 marker in more than 95 percent of PV patients. Experts believe people who have the JAK2 marker may already have or may later develop PV or other blood diseases.

“The benefit of having the test done is that you will know if you carry the JAK2 genetic marker,” Murphy said.

PV is classified as a cancer because stem cells in the marrow do not respond to the normal signal to stop producing red blood cells. Early detection before clinical symptoms appear can lead to medical care that prevents or delays complications of the disease.

While the current parameters of the testing program limit the free opportunity to current residents of the tri-county zone, Murphy said citizens who previously lived in the hot zones and have since moved out of the area may also be at risk of developing PV or other cancers. Therefore, the ATSDR hopes to offer free testing to former residents at the conclusion of the residential testing.

According to Murphy, former residents are also invited to contact the ATSDR for information on testing, risks or other information.

Test results are kept confidential and shared only with the patient and his or her personal doctor at the patient’s request.

The blood test takes about 15 minutes. The ATSDR will mail the results of the test to the patient in about four to six weeks.