New York Post 07/20/02: Michael Relda

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The feds are close to winding up an investigating into whether polio vaccines used in the 1950s and '60s were contaminated with a virus that may cause several rare cancers in humans.

The study could help determine whether today's Baby Boomers have ticking time bombs from their childhood inoculations.

Michele Carbone, who is leading the research, told The Post he wants to find how the monkey virus - known as "SV40" - that contaminated the polio vaccine causes human cancer.

An independent committee of experts set up by the Washington-based Institute of Medicine, under contract to the Centers for Disease Control, met in Washington last week to rule on the debate.

The group is to publish a report in September, staff director Kathleen Stratton said, adding that the report may not bring an end to the debate.

She said the study was "unusual because the exposure [to the vaccine] was so long ago," and she stressed that polio vaccines used now, at least in the United States, were free of SV40 contamination.

The contamination theory is being challenged by Howard Strickler, an epidemiologist from New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who does not see any connection between the contaminated polio vaccine and cancer.

Strickler says that diseased tissue samples where Carbone has found SV40 were tainted due to laboratory mishandling.

Carbone, a pathologist at the Loyola University in Illinois, said the virus-contaminated vaccine, cultured from monkey kidneys, was given to 98 million Americans from 1955 to 1963.

Aware of the contamination, federal health officials ordered polio vaccine manufacturers to screen for the virus as of 1961.

But concerned about widespread panic, they never told the public about the virus and did not recall existing stocks.

Carbone cautioned that SV40 is not certain to cause cancer.

"It is well-established that cancer is caused by multiple factors," he said. "There is never an inevitable outcome. Most people exposed to the virus will not get cancer."

Carbone said one of the increased cancers is mesothelioma, a rare and deadly disease that affects the cells in the lining of the chest and the lung.

It is believed to be caused by asbestos, but SV40 is also a factor, and the rates for the disease have gone up since 1950, when it was practically unknown.

Other SV40-related diseases that have gone up in incidence are a brain cancer called ependymoma and bone malignancies.

SV40 is also believed to an agent in non-Hodgkin's lymphomas.