House votes to give University money for mesothelioma research

Devin Henry

The Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday to give $4.9 million to the University to study a rare but deadly form of cancer, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty has already threatened a veto.

The research will include a collaborative between researchers at the University’s Duluth and the Twin Cities campuses to look at mesothelioma, a rare but deadly form of lung cancer.

Studying the cancer has become a priority for some since the Minnesota Department of Health released statistics showing a high rate of mesothelioma in taconite miners in northern Minnesota, Jeffrey Mandel, occupational physician in the School of Public Health, said.

“They looked at the number of cases in miners, and within the mining group, the rate of mesothelioma was significantly higher than it was supposed to be,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Health found that at least 58 people have been diagnosed with the disease as of last summer. The average mesothelioma rate nationally is one in 500,000.

“We think that those funds will clarify several important issues for those workers,” Mandel said. “It will tell us the relationship of taconite exposure to those cases Ö The money will also clarify whether miners are dying from diseases at higher rates than expected.”

Asbestos exposure accounts for many cases of the cancer, Mandel said.

John Finnegan, dean of the School of Public Health, said the research is broken into four different studies, three of which look at the causes of death in the miners and the health of current and former miners.

A fourth study, conducted by a research team in Duluth, will look at air particle samples in northern Minnesota cities to compare them to the mesothelioma cases.

The presence of the cancer hints at other lung-related ailments, such as asthma, Finnegan said.

“All of these studies will help us really zero-in on the basis of what’s happening in the mesothelioma cases,” he said. “We’re also looking at what might also be out there.”

Taconite is a form of iron ore composed of a magnetic form of iron, Larry Zanko, a researcher at Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute, said.

The Minnesota Iron Range, where mesothelioma is prevalent, is one of the largest in the country, he said. More iron ore and taconite are produced in Minnesota than any other state.

Mesothelioma has a long latency period, Zanko said – people who worked in the mines as far back as the 1950s could be affected by the disease today. The question that remains, however, is what directly caused the disease.

“Is it due to what they have been exposed to in the workplace,” he said, “whether that’s commercial asbestos products that have been used in plants for many years or is it something in the rock?”

Ironically, the University was involved in research in the 1920s that lead to taconite mining, Finnegan said.

“Here we are in the 21st century, the University is also deeply involved and now understanding some of the health ramifications of that mining effort,” he said.

This is not the first time the University has attempted to research the disease. Finnegan said the University attempted to secure funding around 25 years ago, but never received enough to get the study too far.

“You get dribs and drabs of money and it never gets to be completed the way it should have been,” he said.

The $4.9 million would pay for the research, some of which is already underway following University funding from the summer.

The bill passed by a vote of 88-45. Funding will come from the state’s workers’ compensation special fund, prompting Pawlenty to threaten a veto of the bill.

Finnegan said its passage is important to advancing research.

“This is probably the best shot in 25 years to get the research done the right way,” he said.