ECU researchers seeking Gulf War veterans

Published 6:24 pm Monday, February 17, 2014

From ECU News Services


Researchers at East Carolina University will spend another year studying the causes of Gulf War illness and medicines that might be able to treat it.

Dr. William Meggs, a medical toxicologist and professor of emergency medicine at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, is the study leader. The $1.1 million study was originally scheduled to end this year but will continue through 2015.

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 one-third, or about 250,000, of the veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War, according to the National Institute of Medicine.

Meggs said the illness is thought to be related to toxic exposures in the war zone.

The study is funded by the Department of Defense.

Forty veterans from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia who developed Gulf War illness have participated in the study so far. Meggs hopes to recruit another 20 to further the research into the effectiveness 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. 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.

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.

Dr. Kori Brewer, a neurophysiologist at ECU, is a co-investigator studying blood tests that could aid in the diagnosis of Gulf War 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.