SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A Chicago oncologist suggested Friday that a groundskeeper’s aggressive lymphoma was inherited and not caused by Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, in a California jury trial over the herbicide’s alleged carcinogenicity.
Although Rush University’s Timothy Kuzel didn’t directly call the man’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma an inherited disease, he testified about various emerging treatments grounded in the theory that it is inherited, such as immunotherapy drugs and drugs that interfere with epigenetic mechanisms.
Immunological diseases are thought to arise from genes predisposing a person to the illness and triggered by environmental exposures.
Epigenetics is the study of inherited changes in gene expression.
The emerging field, according to Kuzel, looks at cellular mechanisms that alter the ability of a cell to turn a gene on or off, allowing cells to proliferate into cancer. Until recently, cancers were thought to result mainly from mutations in DNA caused by environmental factors, like sunshine.
“I think the fact that we don’t have any single gene mutation or disturbance may suggest DNA mutations and alterations may actually not be involved in the process that leads to mycosis fungoides at all,” Kuzel said of plaintiff DeWayne Johnson’s skin-based non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “What we find is a host of alterations in tumor cells in patients with mycosis fungoides, but never a consistent finding. So from one patient to the next, it is rare that you will see the same chromosome or gene mutations or alterations.”
Although U.S. and European regulators have concluded Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate is safe, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it in 2015 as a probable human carcinogen, triggering hundreds of lawsuits against Monsanto in the United States, including Johnson’s.
Johnson, 46, sued the agrichemical company in 2016 after he was diagnosed with mycosis fungoides, which caused cancerous lesions to form over most of his body. He says he developed symptoms after he was twice drenched in Roundup and regularly had it drift into his face while spraying schoolyards for his job with the school district in Benicia, a suburb of San Francisco.
He also claims Monsanto has known for decades that Roundup is carcinogenic but didn’t disclose it for fear of disrupting its multi-billion dollar global business.
On Friday, Kuzel testified that when a person has an immunological problem in the skin, T-cells from other areas of the body travel to and multiply there, causing mycosis fungoides.
He said the illness is also more likely to occur in African-Americans, suggesting that Johnson, who is African-American, was genetically predisposed to the disease and glyphosate played no role.
“[W]ithout scientific fact, there is no way to say what caused any patient’s cancer,” Kuzel told Hollingsworth LLP attorney Kirby Griffis, who represents Monsanto.
Kuzel also said it can take between 2.5 and 5 years for all types of cancer to develop, eliminating Roundup as a cause of Johnson’s lymphoma.
Based on differing estimates by Johnson’s and Monsanto’s attorneys, Johnson used Roundup for about either one or two years.
Johnson’s experts testified early in the trial that cancer-causing agents can cause cancer in mere months. Transplant patients given immunosuppressive drugs, for example, can develop lymphoma in as little as one month, they said.
While true, Kuzel said, it is the Epstein-Barr virus that causes transplant patients’ lymphomas. Having suppressed the immune system, the drugs merely allow the dormant virus contracted during childhood to emerge and wreak havoc on the body.
“We don’t see Epstein-Barr lymphoma outside immunosuppressants,” Kuzel said.
Earlier this week, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos said she was still considering whether to send the issue of punitive damages to the jury, characterizing the evidence supporting damages as scanty.
With Bolanos’ ruling still pending, Johnson’s and Monsanto’s attorneys presented on Friday dueling interpretations to the jury of Johnson’s health and his prognosis, presumably to influence the amount of potential punitive damages awarded.
Johnson’s experts have said they don’t expect Johnson to live past late 2019.
But Kuzel said he could live “months, years, or he could be cured,” alluding to a stem cell transplant, which he said has a 50 percent cure rate.
To be deemed eligible for a stem cell transplant, a patient must be healthy enough to withstand the arduous procedure, which can be deadly.
Johnson, Kuzel said, was in remission based on a favorable March PET scan.
On cross-examination, however, Johnson’s attorney David Dickens with the Miller Firm said Kuzel had failed to tell the jury about a June scan that showed Johnson had relapsed.
Stanford Medical Center, which pioneered stem cell transplants for mycosis fungoides and which treats Johnson, has also not offered him the procedure, Dickens said, presumably because he isn’t strong enough to withstand it.
“Why didn’t you put that on there,” Dickens asked Kuzel, referring to a timeline Kuzel made of Johnson’s illness ending with Johnson in remission.
“Because I don’t know what it means,” Kuzel replied, after acknowledging that Johnson had relapsed.
Glyphosate is the most widely used agrichemical in history. Monsanto introduced it in 1974, and its use exploded in 1996 after the company began selling “Roundup-ready” seeds engineered to resist the herbicide. More than 2.6 billion pounds of the chemical were spread on U.S. farmlands and yards between 1992 and 2012, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Monsanto earns $1.9 billion a year from Roundup and $10.2 billion from “seeds and genomics,” most of that category being Roundup-ready seeds.
In June, German pharmaceutical giant Bayer completed its $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto after approval by U.S. and European regulators. Bayer told Reuters that same month it plans to retire the Monsanto name.
Monsanto rested its case Friday. Closing arguments are set for Aug. 7.