Mar 15, 2022 - News

Nashville firefighter DNA powers 9/11 research

Illustration of a DNA strand with the Twin Towers as the base pairs.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

DNA from more than 200 Nashville firefighters was used to study the long-term health of 9/11 first responders at the World Trade Center.

  • A new study featuring research from Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) used the samples to determine 9/11 first responders were more likely than their peers to have a genetic mutation that can cause blood cancers or cardiovascular disease.

Why it matters: The study, published last week, harnessed the power of VUMC's massive DNA database that includes samples donated by some 300,000 unique patients.

How it works: Patients who opt to participate in the database program, called BioVU, have DNA collected from leftover blood samples.

  • Samples are de-identified and cannot be traced back to an individual person, although some of the anonymous patients' characteristics, including occupation, are logged to help researchers track trends.

Driving the news: Researchers compared samples collected from 9/11 first responders with samples from 203 firefighters in Nashville who had not been exposed to the World Trade Center dust. They also analyzed samples from International Association of Firefighters members who hadn't responded to 9/11.

  • That comparison showed first responders who had been exposed to the dust had more potentially dangerous genetic changes in their blood than the other firefighters.
  • Scientists at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center collaborated with colleagues in New York for the study.

State of play: VUMC doctor and researcher Michael Savona, who led the local team, tells Axios the BioVU repository made the study possible.

  • "It was fairly prescient," Savona says. "We're able to use this unique data source to reach really specific populations."
  • Savona says this research could help "focus efforts" to prevent the potentially deadly diseases that can arise from this mutation.

What they're saying: "We are always glad when our personnel volunteer for projects that can help other first responders," the Nashville Fire Department tells Axios in a statement. "This work to help our fellow first responders who continue to feel the effects of the 9/11 tragedy is especially important and no doubt will be able to help many others in the future."

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