Posted on Fri, Apr. 21, 2006

UT Southwestern gets $75 million for Gulf War illness study.

Associated Press

DALLAS - When a few doctors began researching the memory loss, dizziness and loss of motor functions of some soldiers who had returned from the first Gulf War, they relied on private funding because of widespread skepticism about the illness.

But the government and medical community took notice after a 1997 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the veterans had brain damage, not a psychological condition or stress. Attitudes slowly began changing, and a study a few years later showed that one in seven Gulf War veterans is sick.

Now the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas will receive $15 million a year for five years and is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' designated Gulf War illness research center. Officials from the hospital and VA, which is funding the program, signed the formal partnership agreement Friday.

"Any time you have a new idea everybody's skeptical," said Dr. Robert Haley, who has led Gulf War illness studies - including the 1997 one - for more than a decade at the Dallas research hospital. "The Defense Department is fully bought in to what we're doing; the VA is fully bought in. Everybody's working together now, as you see today, to try to come up with a solution."

Texas has more than 100,000 Gulf War veterans, second only to North Carolina. Nearly 700,000 soldiers served in the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

UT Southwestern's main goal is to develop a test to diagnose the illness. The hospital conducts studies using an MRI with a powerful magnet that reveals more detailed images of brain functions, Haley said. Scans are taken while patients are asked to do tasks, such as identify pictures they recognize.

Hospital officials plan to buy a second MRI in the next year for the Dallas VA Hospital, where veterans ultimately can be diagnosed and treated in the coming years and the program expanded to other VA hospitals nationwide, Haley said.

"This has been beyond the reach of science," Haley said. "Everybody realizes we're on the verge of a real breakthrough here."

Haley and UT Southwestern began researching the illness in 1994 at the request of Texas billionaire businessman Ross Perot, whose help was sought by about a dozen soldiers suffering from symptoms, including disabilities in their children.

Perot said the topic was controversial because the government considered it "a 100-hour non-war - a heck of an insult for these men who had fought for our country." Perot ended up giving more than $2 million to the hospital for research over the next few years, Haley said.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison helped secure government funding in 1998, and the newly designated $75 million over the next five years was a provision sponsored by Hutchison in a spending bill for military construction and VA programs.

She said Friday that the research would help not only soldiers but farmers and others affected by chemicals such as pesticides.

"I also wanted to look to the future because we are going to have chemical warfare someday, I'm sure, and I want to be prepared for that," said Hutchison, R-Texas.Officials from the hospital and VA, which is funding the program, signed the formal partnership agreement Friday."