WASHINGTON – By creating a medical database of health information gathered from U.S. veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs hopes to better understand how genes affect the health of both veterans and civilians.
The Million Veteran Program aims to collect data from 1 million veteran participants in order to study diseases ranging from diabetes to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The purpose of the Million Veteran Program is to create a database of genetic military exposure, lifestyle and health information in order to conduct research that can improve veterans’ health care,” said Gabrielle Gill, the VA research coordinator in Baltimore.
To participate, veterans provide a blood sample, fill out a survey about their health and allow the department access to their medical records. Researchers hope the data will lead to new ways of treating widespread illnesses like cancer and heart disease, as well as develop individualized ways of treating common military-related conditions, such as brain injury.
Such a database will help doctors understand why certain treatments work for some patients and not others, as well as help prevent illnesses in the first place by examining their causes, said Joel Kupersmith, the VA’s chief research and development officer.
Researchers hope that by determining what genes are associated with increased susceptibility to certain diseases, they will be able to devise treatments that will work with patients’ unique genetic makeup.
“It’s not just tailoring treatment to the patient; this is discovering treatment and designing treatment for the individual,” Kupersmith said.
Genes that indicate a predisposition for common post-deployment conditions, such as PTSD, will be a heavy focus of study, he said. Other research will look at mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
The program first began to enroll veterans in May, and with more than 133,000 participants so far, including about 1,700 in Maryland alone, the database is expected to be complete within five to seven years.
Gill said the Maryland offices hope to enroll about 4,000 veterans each year, with the goal of gaining 20,000 participants over the course of the program.
“Veterans, first of all, enjoy helping out other veterans. That’s one of the main reasons why they participate,” she said. “I think they realize the importance of doing this type of research to improve veterans’ health care and have a global impact on health research. We’re a pretty altruistic bunch.”
About 8.3 million veterans are enrolled in the Veterans Affairs health care system, about 55,000 of them in Maryland.
Veterans Affairs has never conducted research on this scale in the past, and researchers said they hope the Million Veteran Program will become one of the largest databases of its kind.
The way genes affect a patient’s likelihood of getting diabetes or another disease is complicated, but it becomes much easier to examine with a greater volume of data to study, Kupersmith said.
“It’s necessary, because there are so many possibilities and so many things to study, it’s really necessary to have large databases to accumulate enough data,” he said. “It’s not a simple thing. There is a necessity for large numbers.”
Maryland veterans have the option of enrolling at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Center, as well as the Glen Burnie Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic. Veterans are welcome to join during walk-in hours, Gill said.
“The idea is to get out into the community and go to the veterans, instead of having them have to come to us,” she said.
For more information on how to participate in the program, visit this website.