Military veterans have always risked blood in support of a cause. Now they are willfully donating it in support of a new mission. That cause is the Million Veteran Program, an ambitious project whose goal is to collect and warehouse 1 million samples of DNA. Most people think of DNA as a crime-solving tool for television dramas and courtrooms. But its potential applications are far wider than that, and this government funded project reflects those many uses.
The project began in earnest following approval from Pres. Obama in 2010. As more facilities get involved, the quicker the approach to the goal. Earlier this year MVP reached a milestone of 500,000 DNA samples, making it the largest biorepository of its kind in the world. More than 50 VA hospitals participate in the collection process, including the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass., which has contributed more than 700 samples since becoming involved in 2014.
“Many veterans do volunteer for the program,”said Bedford Local Site Investigator John Wells, PhD. “It’s a pretty simple process, complete a survey, sign the approval, then have a small amount of blood drawn. Later, a follow-up survey arrives in the mail.”
As administrator of the Bedford enrollment site, Wells must assure the volunteers of the data’s security and limited accessibility.
The digital component of the program is vital to every aspect. Complete medical history is included alongside of every sample, but that information does not include any personal information about the submitter. Because there is no name attached to each specimen, the anonymity of the individual is assured. Each specimen is itself codified so that the actual biological “sera” can be stored indefinitely without compromise. Even access to the anonymous collective is limited to a very few, highly vetted entities.
Access has been granted to a few research groups, whose work focuses on the following medical issues:
- Gulf War Illness (GWI) risk factors—will compare ‘case’ patients with healthy ‘controls’ looking for genetic relationships.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) risk factors—an effort probing the genes that influence the development of PTSD.
- Functional Disability in schizophrenia and bipolar illness—examination of genetic risk for developing the disorders.
- Genetic Vulnerability of Sustained Multi-substance Use in MVP—looking into the genetic risk factors for chronic use of alcohol, tobacco, and opioids. (MVP press release)
This research is already underway, being conducted on the existing database while the nationwide collection efforts persist. And, although this entire initiative is for now exclusive to veterans, the medical advancements and correlative discoveries will theoretically benefit all of humanity.
“There is great value to such a database,” said Veronica Godoy-Carter, Ph.D. at Northeastern University’s Department of Biology. “Not only will it reveal patterns and propensities for diseases, it will give hints into evolution and of protein aggregation.”
The more immediate goal of MVP is “to better understand how genes affect health and illness in order to improve healthcare for veterans…not only for themselves, but for future generations of Veterans,” according to the website of the program’s overseeing authority, the VA Office of Research & Development. Their news releases explain that eventually the information will be shared with “other federal health agencies, and academic institutions within the U.S.”
“I should hope that we will have access,” Godoy-Carter said, “since we pay taxes which paid for it (MVP).”
Among the objectives of MVP are ways of predicting, diagnosing and treating illnesses. Backers of the program hope to answer why some medications are more effective on some subjects than on others, and why side-effects vary. These answers can be found by studying genetic connections and commonalities in search of patterns and other markers.
While there is nothing necessarily new about this program — the secrets of the human genome have been unfolding gradually over the past decades thanks to myriad studies and research projects around the world – what makes the MVP stand out are the sheer volume of samples and the extensive medical history attached to each one.
And the massive cache of data will be stored indefinitely, allowing for future studies ideated by researchers. It will likewise be forever protected by confidentiality. A 2010 federal law called GINA (Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act) prevents insurance companies and employers from looking into the likelihood of a person’s acquisition of diseases, behaviors, and illnesses. If they are forbidden to delve into a person’s genetics, then they are unable to discriminate based on future health.
“MVP provides Veterans with another opportunity to serve,” MVP participant Robert Belle said. “I would encourage all Veterans to participate.” Veterans from all eras past, present, and future will benefit from the research.
John Wells explained that only Veterans are allowed to volunteer is because they all have their complete health records stored within the Veterans Health Administration’s electronic network. By linking these readily-available records to a specific DNA sample, a complete medical picture is instantly drawn, then stored in the secure website.
“Precision medicine is the ultimate goal, including prediction and treatment,” Well said.
Image credit: Stock photos
Scott Shurtleff is a Lowell, MA based freelance writer and Veteran of US Army Airborne.