Wayne State University

WSU researcher awarded $900,000 to determine common genetic link among Gulf War Illness patients

DETROIT— For nearly two decades following the 1991 Gulf War, doctors noticed a trend in many of veterans of that conflict: an unexplainable cluster of symptoms including but not limited to chronic fatigue, memory loss, and depression. It wasn’t until 2008 that a scientific panel from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that a third of American troops who served in the Gulf War were suffering from combinations of these symptoms, now recognized collectively as Gulf War Illness (GWI).

Now, Henry Heng, Ph.D., associate professor in WSU’s Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, also of the Department of Pathology and Karmanos Cancer Institute in the School of Medicine, intends to discover GWI’s mysterious biological cause. Heng was recently awarded a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study whether GWI stems from genomic instability, which he believes is the common link among GWI patients.

After 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 genomic instability, 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. The Discovery Channel program has received a great deal of attention from veteran groups.

Heng’s hypothesis is also drawn from the genome theory, which suggests that complex disorders 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 and includes the genomic topology and the genetic network. 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,” said Heng.

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.”

Collaborators include Saroj Chowdhury, M.D., and Christine J. Ye, M.D., physicians at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, and Joshua Stevens, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in Heng’s lab.

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