Toxicology in Third World Settings Focus of Bend Meeting

09/16/04    Portland, Ore.

A meeting of Northwest toxicologists in Bend this weekend will explore methods to reduce illness and death from exposure to occupational and environmental agents in Third World countries.

The annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Association of Toxicologists, PANWAT, co-sponsored by the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), will assemble perhaps 50 scientists and students from across the country to discuss environmental threats to human health in the world's poorest regions.

The event is Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 18 and 19, at Mount Bachelor Village Resort and Conference Center in Bend. PANWAT is the Society of Toxicology's regional chapter.

"Toxicology in Third World Settings" - the conference theme - will highlight the latest research on everything from hazardous foods to air pollutants believed to cause debilitating and crippling disorders that strike tens of thousands in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

"I want to bring to Northwest scientists the reality of toxicology research in the Third World," said Peter Spencer, Ph.D., F.C.R.Path., professor of neurology, OHSU School of Medicine, director and senior scientist of CROET and president of PANWAT. Few have experienced the opportunities for discovery and contribution in these severely stressed populations.

One goal of the meeting is to create a "Bend Accord" - a living document outlining opportunities, challenges and goals for reducing the incidence of toxic disease in Third World countries, such as through research that could lead to the development of nonpoisonous plant varieties used as staple foods.

The meeting will include a series of mini-symposia, roundtable discussions, and invited speaker and poster sessions beginning Saturday morning. The kick-off is a keynote lecture on environmental health threats to children globally, given by Terri Damstra, Ph.D., lead U.S. scientist for the International Program on Chemical Safety of the World Health Organization. Several other guest speakers will highlight regional environmental health problems and their possible solutions. Saturday afternoon will feature student and postdoctoral presentations on molecular and cellular actions of toxic substances and their relationship to disease.

Sunday's events, sponsored by the Portland-based Third World Medical Research Foundation (TWMRF), will focus on degenerative brain disorders caused by necessary food dependence on hardy but hazardous plants, such as the shrubby, tropical cassava, the palm-like cycad and the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus). Valerie Palmer, president and founder of TWMRF, and a research associate in neurology, OHSU School of Medicine, will present a keynote lecture titled "Lathyrus and lathyrism: Highlighting 20 years of research and education on neglected disorders."

Lathyrism is a leg-crippling disease caused by food reliance on grasspea, a link first documented as early as 1,600 years ago. Grasspea is eaten in India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, where the poor value it as a high-protein legume tolerant of drought and floods that kill other crops.

"But for one neurotoxic amino acid, grasspea is like 'manna from heaven,'" said Palmer, who coordinates CROET's Toxicogenomics Laboratory. "Lathyrus is an important food stock. Even developed countries are taking an interest in it." TWMRF assembled and sponsored a global, multidisciplinary scientific cooperation that has produced low-toxin strains of grasspea. Whether these strains are safe for food and feed will be closely examined at an upcoming meeting in Syria.

Another lecture Sunday will be on "Cassava and Konzo in sub-Saharan Africa," presented by D. Desire Tshala-Katumbay, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now a CROET assistant professor of neurology at OHSU School of Medicine. According to TWMRF, Konzo is the name used in the Congo for a lathyrism-like crippling disease caused by incompletely detoxified cassava root, a rich source of cyanide-related compounds.

"Cassava feeds 500 million people in the tropics and subtropics, usually without causing neurological problems," Spencer noted. "But, if you are sitting in the middle of Africa with nothing else to eat, and there is insufficient time or water to wash away the poison, then Konzo strikes women and children in epidemics that affect whole villages."

Also Sunday, Spencer will discuss "Cycad and Western Pacific ALS-PDC," a devastating neurodegenerative disease prevalent in Guam among the indigenous Chamorro people who have traditionally used the highly toxic cycad seed for food and medicine. "Imagine having Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer-like dementia at the same time," he said. "Solving this terrible disease will not only lead to prevention, but also increase understanding of related disorders in the Northwest and elsewhere.

"Cooperative research with TWMRF led to the discovery of a crucial link between cycad and ALS in the remote New Guinea jungle. Now we have an NIH center grant to study, with CROET scientist Dr. Glen Kisby and colleagues at (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, how a key cycad toxin impacts brain gene expression and triggers neurodegeneration."

TWMRF - P.O. Box 9179, Portland, OR 97207 - is a small, nonprofit organization that works in conjunction with university researchers on toxic, nutritional and other health disorders of the world's poor.

Editors: To attend the PANWAT meeting, contact Carin Thomas at 509 963-2815 or cthomas@cwu.edu. For interviews with Valerie Palmer, Desire Tshala-Katumbay or Peter Spencer, contact Jonathan Modie at OHSU at 503 494-8231 or modiej@ohsu.edu .

###