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Gulf War illness study at ECU seeks veterans

Dr. William Meggs
Dr. William Meggs
GREENVILLE, N.C.  (Apr. 18, 2011)  —  An East Carolina University medical toxicologist is leading a team of biomedical scientists working to recruit veterans to participate in a study of new medicines to treat Gulf War illness.

Gulf War illness is the name given to the chronic fatigue, chronic pain and difficulty with mental tasks suffered by some who served in the war and its aftermath. It affects almost a third of veterans of the 1991 conflict. Twenty years later, no effective treatments exist for this debilitating condition, also known as Gulf War syndrome.

"We now have a deeper understanding of this disease, but have no effective treatments. The research emphasis has shifted from what happened to these service men and women to getting them well," said Dr. William Meggs, the study leader. Meggs is a board-certified toxicologist, professor of emergency medicine at ECU and chief of toxicology at Pitt County Memorial Hospital.

Nearly 700,000 U.S. personnel were deployed to the region and more than 250,000 of them suffer from persistent, unexplained symptoms, according to the National Institute of Medicine.

The Department of Defense is sponsoring the $1.1 million, three-year study. Meggs hopes to recruit 60 veterans who developed Gulf War Illness to participate in the research of generic drugs that control inflammation in the brain that may have been triggered by neurotoxin exposures.

Immediately after the war, Gulf War illness was attributed to post traumatic stress disorder. Others claimed that it was a psychological illness. The illness was dismissed and no serious research was done. Ross Perot, a billionaire and former presidential candidate, funded the first serious investigation of Gulf War illness.

The Department of Veterans Affairs then founded a research advisory committee to direct research efforts in the disease. Meggs was asked to serve in 2002 and continues serving. On this committee, he developed a deeper knowledge of the illness, met many Gulf War veterans and formulated an approach to the disease.

"Serving on the Research Advisory Committee has been a learning experience for me," Meggs said. "Three veterans with the illness are on the committee, and many others come to the deliberations. The intensity of their suffering from chronic pain, chronic fatigue and difficulties with thinking and memory has motivated my interest in this research."

Research shows that those serving in the Gulf War had exposures to sarin nerve gas from Scud missiles and demolition of ammunition dumps containing sarin. Neurotoxic insecticides related to sarin were used to spray tents to control sand fleas. Troops also received a drug to prevent sarin from binding irreversibly at nerve junctions but that has similar toxicities.

They were also exposed to smoke from oil well fires in Kuwait, depleted uranium, multiple vaccinations and oil sprayed on the sand in camps to reduce sand dust. Research has shown that exposure to neurotoxic chemicals is most strongly associated with development of Gulf War illness.

Meggs' approach is motivated by the work of Dr. John Hong, the neuroscientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Research Triangle Park who identified the drugs being used in the trial as useful in controlling smoldering inflammation in the brain, which is believed to be involved in the illness.

In addition to performing controlled trials of the pharmaceuticals, the ECU team will study inflammation markers in the blood to see if a diagnostic test for Gulf War illness can be developed.

Gulf War veterans interested in knowing more about the study may contact Meggs at 252-744-5568.

 


Contact: Doug Boyd | 252-744-1482