Sunday, January 31, 2016

Liz is a guest of the President today

Today is a very special day for local environmental health specialist Dr Liz Cullen, writes Brian Byrne. It's the day that she visits Áras an Uachtaráin for the first time, as the guest of President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.

She will be joining a number of other women working in the sciences for a special reception being held this afternoon by the President, who is patron of the Women In Technology & Science (WITS) forum.

Her invitation came about because of her recent win in the inaugural BT Masters Bursary run in conjunction with the BT Young Scientists Competition. She was given the award for her proposal on how we can learn more about the environmental factors contributing the cancer.

The Bursary was more than just money to her. It was a big boost to her own belief in her project.

Dr Cullen wants to establish a format and programme to establish a much more intensive national data base on cancer than currently exists. For what is as of 2014 the biggest killer illness in Ireland — previously heart disease — she believes there's a surprisingly incomplete monitoring of the possible external factors which may be part of the causes of cancer.

"For instance, data on 82 communicable diseases are gathered, of which 34 are given enhanced surveillance," she says. "For mumps, measles and salmonella alone, there are more than 30 pieces of information obtained, including vaccination status where relevant."

This involves detailed information gathering from the patients, or their parents, their general practitioner, hospital laboratory, microbiologist, or hospital staff in order to allow a more detailed analysis of the variables impacting on the incidence of the disease to be undertaken.

But even though there's been a national Cancer Registry since 1994, fewer details of each cancer case are acquired. The patient's name, gender, location, type of cancer, age and details of treatment are recorded. Dr Cullen's proposal is to set up a similar enhanced surveillance as there is for infectious diseases, which themselves were responsible for only a little over 1% of deaths in Ireland in 2014.

Her concerns are backed up by the European Environment Agency, which says there is a 'serious lack of monitoring' of the current 100,000 chemicals in use in the EU, and even for three-quarters of the 3,000 large volume chemicals among those, there's insufficient information on their toxicity to humans and the ecosystem.

"Also, the international classifications of chemicals on their carcinogenic potential only involve less than 2% of chemicals in general use," Dr Cullen says. "It is clear that we are exposed to many different chemicals whose effects are unknown."

It's not just chemicals which are unknowns. For instance, it's less than 30 years since mobile phones have come into common usage, and there are almost 6,000 telephone transmitter masts in operation in Ireland at present. In her proposed enhanced surveillance of cancer incidence, Dr Cullen wants the role of these and other possible environmental factors in the development of cancer to be put on a national data base. The information would then be available for detailed study by other researchers.

The project is not one which she could undertake on her own, and ideally it should be taken on board by a relevant state agency, such as the HSE or the EPA. In the absence of these being willing to do it, Dr Cullen is also considering the possibility of asking a university to underpin the research, with appropriate external funding.

Her idea is a major one, and a long-term one, so significant and sustainable funding would be required for a team of researchers.

Dr Cullen's prize for winning the BT Masters Bursary was €1,000. A drop in the ocean, but as she indicated, an important wave in a tide which must surely be allowed to develop as a major force in the fight against our biggest killer.

NOTE: A version of this article was first published on the Kilcullen Page of the Kildare Nationalist.