A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

It’s Genetics, Stupid

February 1, 2004

Wolfgang Löscher has suffered numerous personal attacks for his work on EMFs and breast cancer. But he struggled on, and now he may have resolved a fundamental problem in EMF research: Why different labs doing what appear to be identical experiments, produce conflicting results.

First a little history. Beginning in 1993, Löscher and Meike Mevissen at the School of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, Germany, published a series of studies in high-quality, peer-reviewed journals showing that EMFs can promote breast cancer in Sprague-Dawley (SD) rats after being initiated with the known carcinogen DMBA. The work begged to be repeated, and Gary Boorman of the U.S. NIEHS, who at the time was running the EMF RAPID research program, asked Larry Anderson at the Battelle labs in Richland, WA, to give it a try.

But they botched the job.

In the first two of three experiments, the dose of DMBA given to the rats —although the same as the amount used by Löscher— had a much stronger effect in Anderson's lab than in Löscher's. Without any EMF exposure, 92-96% of Anderson's SD rats developed tumors, compared to about 40% of Löscher's unexposed rats in Hannover. The DMBA had caused so many breast tumors in the Battelle rats that there was no room to see any possible increase brought on by EMFs. These two experiments should have been tossed out, but Boorman refused, no doubt because, in his own mind, they suppported his conviction that EMFs are benign. A third Battelle experiment using less DMBA, did not show any EMF promotion.

With only one reliable experiment —one which did not agree with the much larger body of work carried out by Löscher— Boorman decided that Anderson was right and Löscher was wrong. NIEHS' Christopher Portier, who would later take over as the head of the institute's Environmental Toxicology Program, sided with Boorman and counted all three experiments as showing no EMF effect. In the NIEHS report to Congress on the EMF RAPID program, Portier wrote that the Battelle studies provide "strong evidence" that EMFs do not promote breast cancer. [emphasis added]

But Boorman was not satisfied with simply championing Anderson. He began a dirty tricks campaign to discredit Löscher.

Other EMF skeptics joined in the attacks. At the 1998 NIEHS working group meeting to evaluate EMF health risks. Jerry Williams of Johns Hopkins University prepared a minority report —with NIEHS' blessing— arguing that Löscher's work was "fundamentally flawed."

Fed up, Löscher wrote to Boorman complaining that he had never been treated so shabbily during his 25-year scientific career ( see MWN, N/D98, pp.12-13). George Lucier, the then head of the Environmental Toxicology Program, later apologized on behalf of NIEHS.

Löscher may have been beaten up but he was not giving up. He still wanted to know why he was seeing EMF effects with his DMBA–treated SD rats while Anderson saw no effect with his rats. To his credit, Anderson joined Löscher's quest. Together they explored the possible reasons for the divergent findings. Meanwhile, Löscher sought and received funding from the German Research Foundation to continue his search.

Back to the Present

In his new paper, appearing in the January 1, 2004, issue of Cancer Research, Löscher presents a logical and elegant explanation of what had happened. It is a tour de force and should be required reading at the NIEHS. (We ran a news story and an editorial applauding this work when it was first presented in 2002.)

Löscher has shown that two substrains of SD rats (one in Germany and one in the U.S.), while apparently very similar, responded quite differently both to the DMBA alone and to the combined DMBA–EMF exposures. Small genetic variations in the rats determined how their breast tumors developed.

Löscher was busy not only in the lab but also in the library. For instance, he found a paper, published back in 1984 by a team at TNO (the same TNO that recently implicated RF radiation from mobile phone towers with health complaints). The TNO researchers reported that two different lines of SD rats responded very differently to both DMBA and to ionizing radiation. Back then, they wrote that, "inherent differences exist between [SD] rats obtained in the U.S. and The Netherlands with respect to their mammary responses to DMBA, and also in their responses to radiation."

Sound familiar? Simply replace "radiation" by "EMFs" and "Germany" for "The Netherlands" and that same sentence could have been the conclusion of a Battelle-NIEHS investigation —if NIEHS had had any interest in doing one.

In the paper Löscher also suggests that differences in genetic susceptibility may resolve another set of divergent experimental results. These are part of another ugly chapter in the history of EMF research.

Some 15 years ago, Reba Goodman of Columbia University and Ann Henderson of Hunter College, both in New York City, published a number of papers showing that weak ELF EMFs could modulate gene expression. Adam Lacy-Hulbert, working in James Metcalfe's lab at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., and separately, Jeffrey Saffer at Battelle (yes, the same Battelle) could not repeat the Goodman-Henderson work (see MWN, J/A94, p.2 and M/J95, p.2). At the time, some observers suggested that genetic variations in the cell lines used by the various research groups might explain the different results.

But that possibility has never been examined the way Löscher has done for EMFs and breast cancer. He writes: "[T]he cell preparations used in such studies may determine whether or not cells respond to [EMF] exposure. This may finally explain why so many biological experiments with [EMF] exposure yield contradictory results."

None of this should be surprising. The more we learn about diseases and the drugs used to fight them, the more we understand that genetic variations among individuals can lead to very different biological responses.

This story is about more than one scientist being right and another being wrong. If Löscher is correct and EMFs can indeed promote breast cancer, his animal data would support the epidemiological assocation linking EMFs to cancer and bump up the classification of EMFs from a possible to a probable human carcinogen. And, as a result, force utilities and government agencies to take this health risk seriously rather than continue to ignore it the way they do now.

Löscher has taught us all an important lesson, not only about how to do science, but also how bias can poison the scientific process.