Gulf War Illness study continues at ECU

Mar 27, 2014

A study conducted at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine looking for both a treatment and a confirmatory blood test for Gulf War Illness will continue through 2015. George Olsen has more.

It’s difficult enough treating any disease, even more so when it’s a disease whose diagnosis can’t be confirmed.

 “GWI is grouped with illnesses that are called symptom based syndromes. That is the criterion is based on symptoms rather than an objective test. An ill Gulf War veteran comes to our clinic and the typical physical examination is normal. The standard scans like CTs and MRIs are normal, yet they are sick, and they suffer greatly.”

Dr. William Meggs with the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. He’s been leading a study since early 2011 of Gulf War Illness, believed to be caused by chemical exposure during 1991’s Operation Desert Storm including insecticides and sarin gas from Iraqi stockpiles The study seeks a treatment as well as a blood test that can confirm the illness which might streamline what can be a scattershot method of treating a veteran’s symptoms.

 “Some are not taking any medicine or taking a multi-vitamin while others are… we have one veteran who has been prescribed 19 pharmaceuticals to treat the symptoms of gulf war illness while many are on 6 or 8 or 10 medications. Looking at our data we know that those receiving many medications are just as sick as those who aren’t taking any medications.”

Dr. Meggs’ study hopes to bring some manner of simplicity to diagnosing and treating Gulf War Illness. As far as diagnosis, rather than an if/then situation… if the veteran served in the first Gulf War and displays symptoms of chronic fatigue and pain plus neuropsychological illnesses, then he may be suffering from Gulf War Illness… that question could be replaced by a blood test searching for markers to indicate the presence of Gulf War Illness.

“What we’re looking at is natural substances in the body that are elevated when neuroinflammation takes place, and by neuroinflammation we know there are two pathways to produce inflammation in the body. One is the immune system with the white blood cells, but nerve cells themselves can detect the presence of foreign materials and respond with an inflammatory response, and when that happens certain messenger molecules are increased in the blood and those are the ones we’re looking at.”

And if the treatment portion is confirmed, it could greatly streamline the treatment of Gulf War Illness.

“The treatments we’re looking at are two generic medications that reduce inflammation in the brain by targeting a type of cell called a microglial cell which is a cell that is involved in the immunity of the brain to infections, but if its inappropriately activated it can lead to symptoms.”

Dr. Meggs’ study is looking to bring about 20 more veterans into the study, which had been slated to end this year but will continue into 2015. The study is a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. A veteran takes a pill for three months, a wash-out pill for a month and then a different though visually identical pill for another three months. One contains an active ingredient, one does not, and neither the veteran… nor Dr. Meggs… knows which is which. They may know soon… Dr. Meggs expects the results on the veterans who have completed the study will soon be “unblinded,” meaning some of the encouraging though subjective results obtained so far might soon come into focus.

“We’ve also had veterans who have not responded to either course of therapy to the extent we would like, but we’ve also had veterans who came back and said well, I just finished the three months. I don’t know if I was taking the active substance or the dummy pill, but I don’t care. I want to be on it, and my wife says you’d better put me on it.”

Dr. William Meggs is the chief of medical toxicology and a professor of emergency medicine at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. I’m George Olsen.


Veterans interested in finding out more about the study can contact 252-744-5568.