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Maryland and Duke University Researchers Collaborate on Pfiesteria's Effects on Humans

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

Contact: Christine Stutz (University of Maryland) Phone: 410/706-0023 Pager: 410/471-1735 cstutz@oeamail.umaryland.edu

Contact: April Thompson (University of Maryland) Phone: 410/706-3801 Pager: 410/471-0143 athompson@oeamail.umaryland.edu (after 8/12)

Contact: Renee Twombly (Duke University Medical Center) Phone: 919/684-4148 twomb001@mc.duke.edu

The University of Maryland and Duke University Medical Center have finalized an agreement to collaborate on the study of human effects of Pfiesteria exposure. The partnership is the result of a $2 million grant awarded last year by the National Institute of Environmental and Health Science. This is the first funding in the nation for intensive study of the "cognitive, psychological, neuroimaging and neurological alterations" associated with human exposure to Pfiesteria piscicida.

Lynn Grattan, PhD, associate professor of neurology and director of the Neuropsychology Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is leading the project as its principal investigator. A subcontract with Duke will allow Maryland researchers to collaborate with the scientists at Duke who saw the first cases of Pfiesteria-related illness in North Carolina.

During August 1997, massive fish kills associated with Pfiesteria occurred in the Pocomoke River and adjacent waterways on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Some people who had contact with the water reported a variety of symptoms including fatigue, headaches, respiratory irritation, diarrhea, weight loss, skin rashes and memory problems. The state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene appointed a Maryland medical team that quickly identified a Pfiesteria-related human illness syndrome (The Lancet, 1998). The medical team received international recognition for its pioneering efforts.

"This collaboration with Duke will allow us to study exposed persons in North Carolina and share sophisticated knowledge with the scientists who saw the first cases of laboratory and environmental exposure," says Grattan.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center will include Deborah Koltai, PhD, neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology, and Don Schmechel, MD, associate professor of neurology and neurobiology, director of the Bryan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and chief of neurology, Durham VAMC. Also working on the project will be JoAnn Burkholder, MD, professor of aquatic ecology, Botany Department, North Carolina State University, and Howard Glasgow, laboratory supervisor, Center of Applied Aquatic Ecology, who will assist with the education and screening of persons who contact the North Carolina laboratory because of suspected Pfiesteria-related illnesses. Burkholder and her colleagues were the first to identify Pfiesteria piscicida, the toxic microorganism that has been responsible for massive fish kills and associated with cases of human illness in North Carolina and Maryland.

Patients will be recruited for concurrent studies in Maryland and North Carolina. Grattan's team will study the effects of Pfiesteria exposure on the brain and the central nervous system. All persons who believe they may have been exposed to the toxins are encouraged to call the Maryland Research Coordinating Center at (877) 668-4559, and in North Carolina at (919) 515-3421. Immediate medical evaluation will follow if there are indications of exposure.

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