A new study backed by US Department of Defense funding is to investigate a possible link between genetic instability and the development of Gulf War Syndrome among veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
It is thought under the extreme conditions of war the genomes of significant numbers of soldiers could become increasingly unstable. This would have far reaching consequences in terms of their health and may provide an explanation for the many and varied symptoms experienced by veterans affected by Gulf War Syndrome, now frequently referred to as Gulf War Illness (GWI).
Since shortly after returning from duty in the Gulf War almost two decades ago a large number of veterans have complained of a multitude of puzzling symptoms that include chronic fatigue, persistent headaches, cognitive impairment, neurological problems, respiratory distress, and chemical sensitivities. After much official denial of the existence of an unexplained physical illness related to service in the Gulf it was only in 2008 that a scientific panel from the US Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that almost a third of American troops who served were suffering from combinations of these symptoms, now recognised collectively as GWI.Other coilition governments have been equally unwilling to accept the existence of GWI.
Following the official acknowledgement of GWI, there is a renewed research impetus to get to the bottom of the multi-system illness experienced by such a large proportion of veterans. The US Department of Defense (DOD) has awared a $900,000 research grant to Henry Heng, Ph.D., associate professor in Wayne State University's Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, to study whether GWI stems from genomic instability, which he believes is the common link among GWI patients. It is hoped the findings of the study will begin to unravel the mysterious biological origins of veterans' symptoms.
While conducting an experiment for a program about Gulf War Illness broadcast on the Discovery Channel, Heng observed that patients who had GWI symptoms also tended to have extremely high levels of instability in their genetic material, illustrated by increased chromosomal aberrations detected in their blood cells. "To our surprise, we found that all of the GWI patients tested showed extremely high levels of chromosomal abnormality that were as high or higher than some cancer patients," said Heng
Heng's hypothesis is also drawn from the genome theory, which suggests that complex multi-system disorders such as GWI and also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), are not caused by individual genes, but rather by diverse factors not commonly shared and that affect the entire genome, which comprises the complete complement of genetic material of an organism within the nucleus of each cell. When abnormal chromosomes form, the entire genome-defined system changes. "We propose that under the extreme environment of war, some individuals' genomes will become increasingly unstable, and war-induced genetic instability will lead to diverse disease traits that can be characterized as GWI," explains Heng
The "extreme environment of war" to which Heng refers includes factors such as psychological stress, exposure to toxic chemicals, and the fact that soldiers received large numbers of vaccinations and drugs intended to protect them from disease and chemical and biological warfare agents.
Recent studies have confirmed among other things that DEET insect repellents can cause nervous system damage and the anti-chemical warfare drug pyridostigmine is also neurotoxic. Research has also shown immune system dysfunction in veterans suffering Gulf War Illness. If proven by Heng's study, the identification of widespread genomic instability among those suffering from GWI could turn out to be a key piece of the puzzle that ties these other observations together.
As his research on GWI progresses, Heng anticipates that his findings may make it possible to use simple blood samples to identify GWI patients. "Establishing GWI as a complex disorder and identifying its general causes will not only allow accurate diagnosis of this condition," said Heng, "but also move us toward reducing the prevalence of this condition in the future."
The study may also help to point the way for future research direction in other complex multi-system disorders, which share much in common with GWI, such as ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).
Source: Wayne State University