Islanders may hold gene clue to cancer

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Some cancer patients and their families living on the tiny island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides are to be screened for a gene which has been linked with a high rate of the disease, particularly tumours of the digestive tract.

The screening follows growing concern about a possible cancer cluster on the island which was revealed by The Independent on Sunday earlier this year. A local GP, Dr Francis Tierney, had tentatively linked the cluster with radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl explosion 10 years ago, which leads to contamination of the ground and coastal waters in a community which grows much of its own produce and eats a lot of seafood.

However, Dr Tierney's claims were roundly dismissed by the Western Isles Health Board following their week long investigation on the island. They concluded that the 19 cases of cancer reported in 18 months at Griminish Surgery - one of the island's two practices - were normal, although they were three times the expected level according to Dr Tierney.

A more detailed investigation followed but the conclusion disappointed doctors, nursing staff, their patients, and the relatives of those with cancer, who felt their anxiety was not being taken seriously by the board.

Now Dr Tierney's concern about the cancers he and his partners were seeing at the Griminish Surgery appears to have been vindicated. From the start, he had insisted that the Chernobyl hypothesis was just one among several worth investigating. He told the BBC Scotland Current Affairs programme, Eorpa, last night: "...the health board really did nothing because, in their words, they did not expect anything else."

It appears that hereditary genetic factors may be the likeliest explanation of any cancer cluster on Benbecula and the Western Isles Health Board confirmed that scientists from Marie Curie Cancer Research have already begun screening for the gene known as HNPCC.

Bruce Skilbeck, chief executive, said the tests were being led by two GPs on the island and a doctor from the International Cancer Research Fund cancer unit at St Mark's Hospital in London, funded by Marie Curie Cancer Research.

Mr Skilbeck said: "[The screening] involves first-degree relatives of patients with colorectal cancer."

Doctors in Finland first discovered that HNPCC-related cancers are increasing with every generation. It is claimed that one sixth of all cancers in Finland can be traced back to a single village where a gene became defective hundreds of years ago.

Professor de la Chapelle, a Finnish cancer epidemiologist, saysthat carriers of the gene have a 100 per cent risk of developing cancer.