A small research study at Baylor University has identified a genetic
difference between veterans who developed symptoms of Gulf War illness
after deploying to that 1990-91 conflict and those who deployed but
didn't get sick.
The finding — touted as the first "direct
evidence" that genetic factors may contribute to a veteran's risk for
Gulf War illness — links the use of anti-nerve agent pills and troops'
Baylor University Institute of
Biomedical Studies researcher Lea Steele and others examined the genetic
profile of 304 Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans,
including 144 former troops who had Gulf War illness symptoms and 160
who did not.
The scientists found that veterans with a gene
variant that complicates their bodies' efforts to metabolize chemicals
in anti-nerve agent pills — pyridostigmine bromide, or PB — were up to
40 times more likely to have Gulf War illness symptoms than those who
took the pills or were exposed but had a different gene variant.
said the findings are preliminary but point to a physical reason why as
many as one in four troops who deployed to the region fell ill while
others came through fine.
"Scientists have long thought this might
be because of some genetic interaction. We know different people break
down toxicants differently based on their genotypes," Steele said.
Researchers looked at genetic variants that "program"
a body to break down certain chemicals found in PB, Sarin nerve gas and
some pesticides. In high doses, these toxins can be fatal, but
anti-nerve agents such as PB contain low levels of these chemicals,
which bind with nerve receptors to shield an individual from the effects
of a nerve agent.
The research found that those with a less
active genetic variant for the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase were more
likely to have Gulf War illness symptoms.