Manatee's Roskamp Institute steps up in veterans' battle with Gulf War Illness

Roskamp Institute provides key research on ailment affecting at least 175,000 veterans

jajones1@bradenton.comJuly 6, 2014 

MANATEE -- U.S. forces suffered fewer than 200 battle deaths during the 1990-91 Gulf War as they drove Saddam Hussein's Iraqi military out of Kuwait.

It was a textbook example of military precision and power that gave little hint of the looming health disaster that would befall many Gulf War veterans.

By some estimates, one in three veterans of that war would eventually struggle with Gulf War Illness.

"Gulf War Illness is a serious physical disease, affecting at least 175,000 veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, that resulted from hazardous exposures in the Gulf War theater," according to a research advisory committee report released in April.

Gulf War vets were frustrated by years of governmental inaction on their problems, just as Vietnam veterans were two decades earlier with Agent Orange.

But now, some of the most significant research on Gulf War Illness is being conducted at Roskamp Institute in Manatee County.

The research is funded under the Gulf War Illness Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.

Roskamp Institute is best known for its ground-breaking research on Alzheimer's Disease. The disease can now be cured in mice. Roskamp is conducting Phase III clinical trials on an Alzheimer's drug for humans in Europe.

It's a big step from mice to humans in developing treatments, said Fiona Crawford, president of Roskamp Institute.

Similarly, Roskamp has developed mouse models of Gulf War Illness, she said.

"We try to mimic the disease in people with mice," Crawford said.

Roskamp researcher have exposed mice to some of the same agents that soldiers were exposed to in the Gulf War.

Initially, the mice may appear OK, then as they age they begin to show the same symptoms experienced by Gulf War vets.

Of mice and men

The best way to develop a model for the disease is by working with mice, said Tanja Emmerich, a doctoral student researching Gulf War Illness at Roskamp Institute.

"We have a mouse model where we look at the blood and see certain changes. Then we look at human blood and see certain changes. We can determine how well the model works," Emmerich said.

Treatments that work on mice offer clues about what might help people as well.

"We're trying to make the bridge here," she said.

Treating Gulf War Illness is difficult because symptoms differ greatly from one person to another.

"Symptoms typically include some combination of widespread pain, headache, persistent problems with memory and thinking, fatigue, breathing problems, stomach and intestinal symptoms, and skin abnormalities," according to a Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.

The research at Roskamp is being used to develop a panel of bio markers for Gulf War Illness, Emmerich said.

Roskamp researchers said they expect to start recruiting soon from the local veterans population for clinical trials of an FDA-approved drug to treat Gulf War Illness.

In the coming months, Roskamp is planning an open house for veterans, healthy or not, who would like to hear about work the institute is doing and who would like to possibly participate in screening.

"It's heart-breaking to have folks come up and say no one is listening to them. We tell them they are not alone," Crawford said.

One of the greatest rewards Emmerich said she receives from her research is having vets tell her that they are happy someone is listening to them and taking their concerns seriously.

Anthony Hardie, a Bradenton resident who is a nationally recognized advocate for vets with Gulf War Illness, has testified before Congress, and has also shared his experiences with Roskamp. He is such a passionate and knowledgeable speaker that researchers listen raptly when Hardie talks.

Hardie believes he came in contact with toxic agents when going through an Iraqi bunker, based on the odor of geraniums and white onions that he smelled. Lewisite, which has the smell of geraniums, is a blister agent or lung irritant. Mustard gas may smell like garlic, mustard or onions.

"It had all the classic signs of a chemical warfare agent," Hardie said.

As many as 250,000 of the 697,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf War may be dealing with Gulf War Illness, Hardie said.

Hardie suffers from chronic, widespread pain, sleep disturbances, frequent infections, and fatigue.

Dealing with the VA

When the Persian Gulf War Veterans Act of 1998 was enacted, Hardie hoped his work was done.

"It was our first experience with VA bureaucrats fighting laws they don't like," he said. "We still have a significant amount of denial from high-level bureaucrats."

Too often VA has been more concerned about its budget than the needs of veterans, Hardie said.

"We need to have actual treatment research. We need to have our Gulf War veterans adequately compensated for their illness. VA has an 80 percent denial rate for Gulf War claims."

With the recent VA scandal growing out of Phoenix and spreading nationwide, the public has finally become aware of VA issues, he said.

Hardie applauds the research being done at Roskamp but says the federal government needs to be spending much more on research.

"We're spending a drop in the bucket for an illness that affects one in three Gulf War veterans. That makes me angry. We have a long, long way to go, and the VA is still failing veterans."

For more information about Roskamp veterans screening, call 941-752-2949, ext. 395. For more information about Roskamp Institute, visit rfdn.org.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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