This Massive Veteran Health Project Just Became The Largest DNA Database In The World. Now Its Future Is Uncertain

Health & Fitness

A large-scale Department of Veterans Affairs project to research how veterans’ genes and military service affect their health surpassed 580,000 participants June 30 during an enrollment event at American Legion headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.


The Million Veteran Program was designated the largest genomic database in the world when it reached 500,000 participants last August. Project leaders plan to use the information to research conditions such as diabetes, cancer, Gulf War illness, heart disease, kidney disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. But the project could face an uncertain future based on President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 VA budget, veterans with the American Legion said.

The budget proposal specifically states that using the Million Veteran Program to advance precision medicine would be a “particular goal” in 2018. But the budget would cut the funding allotted to medical research.

The American Legion has testified to lawmakers about their concerns.

“We noticed that in the [fiscal] 2018 budget that $18 [million] had been stripped out from [the Information Technology] appropriation for all of VA research,” said Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for the American Legion. The total amount in that fund was $20 million, he said.

“We are very concerned about the long-term impacts on cutting-edge research projects like the Million Veteran Program. This research is important and will help develop precision therapies that will benefit veterans and the American people in every legislative district,” Plenzler said. “We’re heading in the wrong direction here. These cuts will limit the amount of research that can be done using the [Million Veteran Program] resource, and that’s a mistake.”

Gerardo Avila and Roscoe Butler, the last two veterans to voluntarily enroll at the Friday event, put the database over the 580,000 mark. VA staff asked them about their medical and military history and collected blood samples.

The Million Veteran Program began collecting data in 2011, and it has the goal of reaching 1 million participants by 2020 or 2021, said Sumitra Muralidhar, the program director.

“Our ultimate goal was really to be able to provide improved and personalized health care to veterans, and to the population at large eventually,” she said. “We’re changing the paradigm of medicine. Traditionally, a doctor checks your symptoms and makes a diagnosis based on that. The future is a holistic picture, looking at DNA, the molecular profile of a person and lifestyle.”

The program was developed with “meager resources,” Muralidhar said.

“We leveraged what we already had,” she said. “We’ve been very diligent with where we put those resources.”

The VA sent 4 million invitations to veterans in the mail in order to recruit participants. To participate, veterans can go to one of 65 VA medical centers across the country that are equipped to do enrollments. Veterans must be enrolled in VA health care to be eligible.

Muralidhar said she’s now working with the Defense Department in an attempt to open enrollment to current servicemembers. Enrolling people earlier could help researchers better track the effects of toxic exposure in the military and improve the likelihood the servicemembers would be helped by the research.

Most participants are from the Vietnam War era, in the age range of 60 to 65, Muralidhar said. Less than 2 percent are younger than 30.

“We have very few younger veterans,” she said. “We’re going to follow people who enroll throughout their lifetimes. So if they enroll early, there’s a better chance of applying what we learn from this program to them and help them. We can prevent illnesses.”

Some veterans have expressed privacy concerns with providing their information to the program. Muralidhar insisted the information is kept in a secure system that only a few VA employees are authorized to access.

A VA website has a list of locations enrolling veterans into the program.

———

©2017 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

WATCH NEXT:

Photo via DoD
(DoD/U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Patrick Shanahan has a message for the next generation of naval officers: what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

Read More Show Less
(Waynesville Police Department)

Hailed as a hero for knocking a shooter off his feet in a UNC Charlotte classroom, Riley Howell was posthumously awarded two of the military's highest honors in his hometown of Waynesville, North Carolina this week.

Howell, 21, and classmate Ellis "Reed" Parlier, 19, died when a gunman opened fire in their classroom in the Kennedy building on April 30.

Read More Show Less
(Islamic State Group/Al Furqan Media Network/Reuters)

CAIRO (Reuters) - After losing territory, ISIS fighters are turning to guerrilla war — and the group's newspaper is telling them exactly how to do it.

In recent weeks, IS's al-Naba online newspaper has encouraged followers to adopt guerrilla tactics and published detailed instructions on how to carry out hit-and-run operations.

The group is using such tactics in places where it aims to expand beyond Iraq and Syria. While IS has tried this approach before, the guidelines make clear the group is adopting it as standard operating procedure.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Alexandria Crawford)

A new survey of thousands of military families released on Wednesday paints a negative picture of privatized military housing, to say the least.

The Military Family Advisory Network surveyed 15,901 adults at 160 locations around the country who are either currently living in privatized military housing, or had lived in privatized housing within the last three years. One of the report's primary takeaways can be summarized in two lines: "Most responses, 93 percent, came from residents living in housing managed by six companies. None of them had average satisfaction rates at or above neutral."

Those six companies are Lincoln Military Housing, Balfour Beatty, Hunt, Lendlease/Winn, Corvias, and Michaels.

What's behind these responses? MFAN points to the "culture of resilience" found in the military community for why military families may be downplaying the severity of their situations, or putting up with subpar conditions.

"[Military] families will try to manage grim living conditions without complaint," MFAN says in its report. "The norm of managing through challenges, no matter their severity, is deeply established in military family life."

Read More Show Less

The F-35 Joint Strike Program may be the most expensive weapons program in modern military history, but it looks as though the new border wall is giving the beleaguered aircraft a run for its money.

Read More Show Less