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The Associated Press

MISSOULA (AP) — A group of 20 scientists is working at the University of Montana to try to find out how the body responds to asbestos exposure and why some people die of related lung ailments while it doesn’t progress as far in others.

The research at UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences is funded by $3 million in federal grants.

Andrij Holian, an internationally known expert in environmental toxicology, is guiding the multifaceted attack on asbestos-triggered diseases, particularly asbestosis — a crippling, deadly disease which attacks the function of the lung and makes breathing difficult.

“By getting a better understanding of the disease, we can ultimately come up with cures,” said Holian, center director. “If we can understand the mechanism of the disease, we can make better steps to block the disease if not reverse it, or stop its progression.”

The research is important to the city of Libby, where reportedly hundreds of residents have died and hundreds more live with asbestos-induced illness due to exposure to the tiny tremolite asbestos fibers unearthed while mining vermiculite at the W.R. Grace & Co. mine.

“In this case, the center has an opportunity and the responsibility to respond to this situation with its skills to better understand the disease in order to ultimately try to treat it,” Holian said.”… Right now there are no cures, and that’s where we come in.”

The scientists will attack the asbestos problem from their various specialties — autoimmunology, gene research, cell biology and neurotoxicology.

They will begin by looking at numerous blood and lung cell samples from Libby residents with and without the disease, comparing them with samples from people in Missoula used as a control group.

Some will look at the genetic differences between people with and without asbestosis. Others will look at basic cell biology to investigate their susceptibility to the disease and the influence of enzyme activity, while still others will investigate cancer and fibrosis aspects of the disease.

The scientists will meet each week to compare their work and plan their next strategy.

“This is a giant problem,” Holian said. “It’s nothing simple. The best way to get answers is not a conservative approach, but a very aggressive one.”

The research may also lead to clues, if not solutions to other diseases, like lupus, multiple sclerosis and scleroderma.

For the scientists, Libby is an intensely different laboratory than they have ever worked in before.

“It’s easy for us researchers to get buried at our bench,” said Jean Pfau, a UM researcher who specializes in autoimmunology. “But this is an opportunity to get at a direct human impact study, and that keeps us motivated every day — knowing that people are really struggling.”

It could be several years until there is any conclusive, or publishable data, Pfau said. The goal is to have some hard evidence in 10 years that identifies who is likely to get the disease, and how to at least stop its deadly progression.

“You just never know how fast science works,” said Elizabeth Putnam, a UM research scientists specializing in human genetics. “You don’t know when the breakthrough will come. You hope it will be sooner than later.”

Gayla Benefield, a Libby resident who watched her parents die of asbestosis, said she realizes the research may not help her.

“It may save lives or save the quality of life of our children who have been exposed to asbestos,” said Benefield, who, along with her husband, has been diagnosed with asbestos-related lung disease.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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