The first veteran to receive an experimental, immunologic treatment for Gulf War Illness at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center is showing improvement, though not a “dramatic” cure that could convert skeptics.
Researcher Brian Engdahl said treatment with immunoglobulin appears to have halted the destruction of the veteran’s brain tissue — one result of the disorder — but hasn’t eliminated his classic GWI symptoms, such as fatigue, indigestion and irritability.
“It is trending in a positive direction — less fatigue, less irritability,” Engdahl said. “He and his wife say, ‘Yeah, he could be a little better.’ We don’t have one of those (miraculous) treatment response stories.”
The major positive is blood tests showing that his brain cells are no longer under attack, he said.
After the 1991 Gulf War, as many as 250,000 soldiers reported chronic and unexplained symptoms including severe joint pain and cognitive problems.
Blood tests and imaging scans over several years led Minneapolis VA researchers to identify six genetic defects that differentiated troops who suffered symptoms from those who didn’t. The specific genes also led them to believe that the disease was due to dysfunction in the immune system — and that immune-boosting drug therapies such as immunoglobulin could help. “There’s something bad in the blood, in the plasma, of these guys and gals 28 years after they fought in the Gulf War,” Engdahl said.
His theory about the cause of the immune system reaction has been hotly disputed by other researchers, who suspect that troops suffered from exposure to desert conditions, oil fumes, depleted uranium, nerve agents and other wartime toxins.
Engdahl suspects the illness was caused by the hastily assembled immunizations given to the troops out of concern that the Iraq military might attack them with biological or chemical weapons. One clue comes from troops who suffered illness after they received the vaccinations but were never deployed to the Gulf.
Engdahl is planning to test immunoglobulin on more GWI veterans. An imaging study at the VA has found portions of the brains of GWI veterans are smaller than average — either because foreign antigens entered the body and attacked the brain directly, or because the immune system overreacted in response. “Antigens have worked their way into the brain and they literally have been eating up the cerebellum and brainstems of these people. It’s visually very dramatic” on imaging scan results, he said.
“We’re pretty confident that we have at least halted it,” he said, adding that he needs more case studies. “Time will tell.”