The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded Wright State University School of Medicine a $5.8 million grant, one of its largest ever awarded for basic science research, to study the enigmatic medical problem known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Wright State researchers, under the direction of Mariana Morris, Ph.D., and Daniel Organisciak, Ph.D., will investigate how stressful conditions combined with low-level chemical exposure may damage the body's systems in subtle ways that have eluded diagnosis. The researchers also want to determine whether chemical sensitization in military and civilian populations to toxins could result from genetic inheritance.
"We believe this research will lead to better ways of treating chemical exposure and to methods for screening people who may be at greater risk," says Howard M. Part, M.D., dean of Wright State University School of Medicine.
More than 100,000 veterans of the Persian Gulf War have reported experiencing symptoms associated with Gulf War Syndrome, including chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, memory loss and sleep disorders. Despite numerous research studies conducted since the war's end in 1991, the syndrome's cause remains unknown.
The first phase of the Wright State study will examine the effects of stress and low-level exposure to the drug pyridostigmine bromide, or PB. The drug was given to as many as 300,000 American troops sent to the Gulf War as a preventive measure against the effects of nerve gas.
A study released by the Pentagon in October 1999 suggested that exposure to PB may be part of the cause of Gulf War Syndrome.
A later phase of the Wright State research will study the effects of stress and low-level exposure to chemical warfare agents such as sarin. Researchers will work with extremely small quantities of a low-concentration, easily-handled form of sarin in a laboratory that meets DOD safety and security requirements. Research-dilute solutions of the chemicals are limited to 1/5,000th of the concentration which might be encountered on the battlefield.
Both sarin and PB act on chemical transmitter systems in the body to inhibit breathing, muscle contractions and heart rate. It is proposed that stress may alter the body's ability to respond to the chemicals, in effect increasing their doses.
"Stress is known to accentuate many pathological conditions such as heart disease, immune dysfunction and cancer. Gulf War syndrome may be another example," explains Morris, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Wright State.
"We want to understand how exposure to these chemicals at low doses affects tissues at the molecular and cellular levels. Previous studies have shown that these substances are toxic in high doses, but we do not know the lower levels where these effects begin," says Organisciak, professor and chair of Wright State's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Several cutting-edge research tools will be applied to the studies. Gene array technology will allow the researchers to analyze genetic factors associated with low-level chemical sensitization and toxicity. A state-of-the-art imaging facility will be used to determine the location of damage within cells.
"This project and the potential it offers to our citizens will put Wright State on the map for the Department of Defense. It is one of the largest basic science grants awarded by the Defense Department," says Congressman David Hobson, 7th District. "It may be the catalyst for other projects that will benefit the entire Miami Valley."
"Wright State is unique because of its close affiliations with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Dayton VA Medical Center," says Wright State president Kim Goldenberg. "The strength of our community partnerships enabled us to compete successfully for this DOD grant. Congressman Hobson is well aware of what this partnership means for the Miami Valley, and we thank him for his support."
Lead partners in the three-year research project include: Wright State's Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Community Health (Lifespan Health Research Center), Emergency Medicine, and Pharmacology and Toxicology; the Tri-Services Toxicology Unit at Wright-Patterson AFB; and the Dayton VA Medical Center.