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VA genetic database aims to unlock clues to ailments

Donald Brooks, left, has a blood sample taken

Donald Brooks, left, has a blood sample taken by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Daniel Norton, at the Northport VA Medical Center Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Donald Brooks rolled up a sleeve, watched stoically as a needle pierced his arm, then exhaled as his blood filled a tiny glass vial last week at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport.

By donating a small sample of blood, the Sayville Army veteran added his participation to what researchers hope will be a giant database that will allow them to pinpoint correlations between an individual’s genetic background and environmental exposures, and their propensity for contracting specific health disorders.

“This could benefit my family, my friends and others in the future,” said Brooks, a former staff sergeant whose health history was recorded by military doctors at posts in Germany and the American South during his 16 years in the Army.

The study, launched by the VA five years ago as the Million Veteran Program, is expected to produce one of the largest databases of genomic and health information ever, according to the VA. Researchers say the database can be particularly revealing because the health records of veterans typically are more complete than those of civilians.

The project, which already has collected blood samples from more than 465,000 volunteers who receive their health care through the VA, aims to match their DNA profiles, electronic health records and the results of lifestyle questionnaires. Northport, which in November was added to the more than four dozen other VA health centers participating in the study, has enrolled some 1,500 volunteers, said Dr. Shing Shing Yeh, who is directing the study there.

Samples collected at Northport and sent to a lab in Boston are analyzed for the hundreds of thousands of possible genetic variations that can be linked with various health maladies, such as cancers, heart disease, hypertension, or type-2 diabetes.

VA researchers say they hope the database, which will exclude information that could identify volunteer participants, will help them read genetic clues as to why one veteran might be more vulnerable to a given disease while another veteran who was exposed to similar environmental toxins might remain healthy.

“It’s this kind of study that has the greatest chance of identifying risk factors that are just not that obvious,” said Dr. George Mallis, an associate professor of medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, and a cardiologist at Northport.

Researchers both at the VA and in academia have gushed about the prospects of the study, saying it has the potential to make use of rapid advances in base pair sequencing and other genetic research tools that are allowing scientists to probe how genes and environment affect health.

For example, researchers are studying the TCF7L2 gene, which is located on chromosome 10 of the human genome. They are exploring how variations of that gene may interact with environmental factors and contribute to the inhibition of insulin production in people with type-2 diabetes.

Veteran health officials have long hoped to better understand how environmental toxins influence the health of former soldiers. Why, for example, have some Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange developed chronic b-cell leukemias, while others exposed to the same dioxin toxins remained free of that disease?

The push to develop targeted treatment methods based on improved understanding of genetic variations within disease gained momentum in January, when President Barack Obama unveiled plans for a similar million-large health database — the Precision Medicine Initiative — in his State of the Union address.

Priya Duggal, the director of genetic epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, said genetic associations uncovered by studying the Million Veteran Program database is likely to lead to treatment breakthroughs.

“Studies like the MVP are a wonderful addition to address the questions we want to ask,” said Duggal, whose own research focuses on how genetic and environmental factors influence the pathways of infectious diseases. “Because you will have genetic data, medical records and information on environmental exposure, we can consider all of the diseases they might have and potentially link them with genetic variance.”

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