Researchers Come Closer to Understanding Gulf War Illness

Jul 31, 2014

Ghania Ait-Ghezala, a scientist with the Roskamp Institute, shows one of the mouse brains the lab studies for its research.
Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

Scientists are coming closer to understanding a disease that continues to affect Gulf War veterans.

The Roskamp Institute’s work in Sarasota is based on the idea that veterans first came in contact with the disease more than twenty years ago.

In early 1991, then-Sergeant Anthony Hardie found himself in a bunker north of Kuwait Bay.

The bunker had a distinct smell. It smelled like geraniums, but he couldn’t really place it at the time.

Really, he was having problems focusing at all.

“It was strangely beautiful so I kept sniffing it, trying to think 'Well, what is this smell?'…I couldn’t remember and I would start the thought again and each time I would start the thought, I would get less far into the thought,” he said.

There were other things about the bunker that stood out to Hardie. Signs the previous residents left in a hurry- uneaten food still on plates, sleeping bags left behind. But, it was the smell that stuck with him most – sometimes it would switch to the scent of onions.

The symptoms started that night.

“I coughed up what I thought to be lung tissue at that time…but it was most likely sloughing off,” he said. “It was probably blistering in my lungs and lung tissue.”

It was only years later, that he learned the Iraqi army had perfected a combination of lewisite and mustard gas during their almost eight-year-long altercation with Iran.

And the chemical weapons had distinct smells: geraniums and onions.

Hardie was honorably discharged in 1993 at the end of his contract. But, respiratory and fatigue issues – among other things –plague him to this day.

Hardie said this exposure was one of many that contributed to his development of a condition called Gulf War Illness. A 2009 Institute of Medicine report said as many as one third of the 700,000 soldiers deployed to the Gulf War are affected by the disease.

But, much of what is known about Gulf War Illness - or GWI - has only been discovered in the 2000’s. Hardie said the Department of Veterans Affairs formed a research advisory committee to look at the disease in 2002.

This lapse in time between the conflict and how it has affected the veteran’s conditions is one of the operating principles for Gulf War Illness research taking place at the Roskamp Institute in Sarasota.

Dr. Fiona Crawford is its President and she’s the Director of its Military Research and Gulf War Illness Programs.

Crawford said the institute began working on Gulf War Illness in the mid-2000’s.The Institute also has a history of working on Alzheimer’s research. Alzheimer’s and Gulf War Illness both affect the brain. Crawford said the institute took what it learned from its work with Alzheimer’s and applied it to Gulf War Illness.

“Because neurodegeneration is one of the aspects of Gulf War Illness, that got us interested in potentially exploring the mechanisms in laboratory models and seeing whether any of the treatments we already have or any of the expertise we already had in neurodegeneration could be applied to GWI,” she said.

Since 2009, those models have been mice.

The lab exposes young mice to chemical agents veterans experienced during deployment. It’s a cocktail of chemicals including pesticides and an anti-nerve agent used at the time.

Crawford said what sets the research apart is that the lab watches how the agents affect the mice over the course of their lives.  

“If we can take these mouse models and treat them late after the exposure and see an effect, that's going to have relevance to today's patients with Gulf War Illness in a way that treating an animal immediately after exposure is not going to be of so much value, ” she said.

Anthony Hardie shows pictures from his time serving in the Gulf War. Hardie developed Gulf War Illness while overseas.
Credit Topher Forhecz/WGCU

 They test the animals’ cognitive abilities including their memories – something veterans like Anthony Hardie have struggled with.

The institute also wants to discover how the issue works on the molecular level.

They analyze the animals’ brains – looking at – among other things –inflammation.

Researchers here have already tested an anti-inflammatory drug from their Alzheimer’s research on mice. Crawford said the company that owns the drug plans to submit it for FDA approval. The institute hopes to have clinical trials in the next few years.

Crawford said they also plan to create a Gulf War Illness clinic.

But, she said there is still more work to be done in researching the disease.

“None of us expect there will be one magic bullet that’s going to treat all Gulf War Illness… There may be some cocktail at the end of the day or groups of patients in whom one particular compound or treatment will work better than others,” she said.

As for Anthony Hardie, he takes a host of supplements that have made a difference. But in 2009, his health forced him into early retirement at age 41 from the number three position in Wisconsin’s Department of Veteran Affairs.

He said he has a few good hours most days.

 “Ultimately, in my work life work, I was a six figure executive,” he said. “And now I’m at home on an early medical retirement. I had a good mind, I would love nothing more than be able to go back into the workforce.”

Still, he continues to advocate for Gulf War Illness research from his new home in Bradenton. He has testified before Congress and worked on federal advisory committees.

Hardie said he’s hopeful researchers will find treatments that would remove the limitations caused by Gulf War Illness – a life he hasn’t been familiar with since that day in the bunker more than 20 years ago.