- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — From growth charts to gingko biloba, Hagerstown has been a hotbed of public-health research for more than eight decades.

Since 1921, when scientists from Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University began recording the heights and weights of schoolchildren in what they regarded a typical rural community, tens of thousands of people living in and around the Western Maryland city have provided raw data for influential studies on aging, addiction, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and more.

“Washington County residents have contributed more to public-health research per person than any place else in the world,” said Sandra C. Hoffman, assistant director of the George W. Comstock Center for Public Health Research and Prevention, established in 1962 at the county health department headquarters.

An affiliated center with clinical facilities — the Johns Hopkins Research Center, in downtown Hagerstown — opened in 1986.

Mr. Comstock, an epidemiologist, died of prostate cancer in July at 92. He spent nearly half his life securing grants and promoting Hagerstown as a source of public-health data. The city, 70 miles west of Baltimore, once was an airplane-manufacturing center and rail-transportation hub.

Research subjects include J. Allen Clopper, 92, a retired flight-test engineer. He donated toenail clippings to be analyzed for cadmium and zinc levels in a cancer study of 32,000 people that Mr. Comstock began in 1989.

“He said he needed toenails, I gave him toenails,” said Mr. Clopper, who considered Mr. Comstock a friend. “He felt that this was a kind of human laboratory here.”

The toenails, white blood cells, diet histories and questionnaires collected in the study, called CLUE II, are kept in a “serum bank” at the Washington County Hospital Center, near the Comstock Center. The data, plus material collected from 25,000 participants in the first CLUE project, begun in 1974, have been used in studies of DNA and skin cancer; secondhand smoke and upper-respiratory diseases; and pancreatic cancer and celiac disease.

More than 300 other studies, sometimes based on Hagerstown data collected decades earlier, have yielded a wide range of public-health information. For example, interviews with 2,000 local families from 1921 to 1923 produced a conclusion that overall illness rates were 12 percent higher among the poor than the well-to-do, Miss Hoffman said.

The 1921 measurements of schoolchildren’s heights and weights, combined with similar measurements taken from the late 1920s into the 1940s, helped establish tables for normal childhood growth, she said. Researchers used some of the same records as recently as 1990 to link childhood obesity to high blood pressure and mortality in adulthood.

Today, Johns Hopkins researchers in Hagerstown are collecting data on cardiovascular health-risk factors, a possible connection between sleep apnea and coronary heart disease, and the potential effects of the herbal supplement gingko biloba on memory and dementia.

Thousands of residents have benefited from the health screenings they got as study subjects, Miss Hoffman said. But the Hagerstown-Hopkins connection has not always been perfect. Beginning in 1943, Johns Hopkins professor Donald Procter used radium to treat childhood hearing disorders at a county health clinic by inserting radium-tipped rods up children’s nostrils. Decades later, researchers found the treatment increased the subjects’ risk for head and neck tumors. Researchers tracked down 90 percent of the subjects for the follow-up investigation.

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