It was a rare form of eye cancer seen only a few times in the US in the past two decades. So when 10 New Yorkers developed vitreoretinal lymphoma within four years of each other, researchers hunted for a common link. That search led them across the world to the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster: It turned out that six of the patients lived near the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine at the time of the catastrophic 1986 meltdown that spewed massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Four patients lived in Ukraine, one in Poland, and one in Moldova. Now they were living in New York City, and all were diagnosed with eye cancer between 2010 and 2013—more than two decades after the disaster. Vitreoretinal lymphoma attacks white blood cells in the retina, the optic nerve, or the vitreous humor.
Since its cause is unknown, "any clues that you get as to possible causes make you very excited," genetic epidemiologist Roxana Moslehi of SUNY Albany tells Live Science. Moslehi, whose research has not yet been published, eventually figured out that radiation, blamed for other lymphomas linked to Chernobyl, could be the cause of the eye cancers. More research is needed to prove that radiation was to blame, but Moslehi has unearthed another interesting lead: She found an Israeli cluster of myeloproliferative disorders, which cause blood cells to proliferate. As with eight of the NYC cases, the Israeli patients were of Ashkenazi Jewish origin and lived near Chernobyl in 1986. (The Chernobyl zone has one thing going for it.)