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VA seeking 1 million volunteers for gene research

More than 10,000 veterans have enrolled in Houston in a nationwide program designed to understand the role genes play in health and eventually improve ways of preventing and treating illnesses.

Houston's Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center is among 50 facilities participating in a nationwide program to enroll 1 million veterans in the data collection system.

The Department of Veterans Affairs launched the voluntary Million Veteran Program three years ago to better understand how genes affect veterans' health and their ability to fight illnesses. The program requires participants to provide DNA so researchers can use it for future studies, said Dr. Rayan Al Jurdi, the Houston site's principal investigator.

In addition to DNA, researchers also will collect health, lifestyle and military-exposure information from questionnaires and medical records for a database. So far, the database has information from more than 250,000 veterans, including nearly 10,200 from the Houston VA, making it the largest study site, the VA said.

"Anyone in the VA, regardless of what diseases they do and don't have can participate," Al Jurdi said, adding that program could create the largest genetic sample worldwide. "That's what's exciting about it. The research possibilities are endless."

Participants include veterans who served as long ago as World War II and those who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, Al Jurdi said. The database will give researchers access to large samples to study conditions such as diabetes, post-traumatic stress and depression, he said.

So far, no research has begun, Al Jurdi said.

More than 25 years ago, the VA began collecting veterans' health information in an electronic database that could be accessed at any VA facility. However, that system does not include genetic data.

The Million Veteran Program required development of a separate database, which veterans must volunteer to enter. Only researchers will have access to the information. Veterans' medical records will remain separate from the database. Participation will not affect access to VA health care services and benefits.

Veterans who volunteer for the program complete health surveys, permit access to their medical records, provide a blood sample for DNA and genetic analysis and allow for future contact. Program enrollment typically happens while veterans already are at the VA for scheduled appointments and tests, Al Jurdi said.

He said many people enrolled in the program to help find cures and treatments for other people.

Army veteran Lucius Huffman of Lafayette, La., was the 10,000th participant to enroll at the Houston VA. A staff sergeant who served from 1979 to 1987, he said he has diabetes and thinks he could help others.

"I was in the military to serve my country," said Huffman, 52. "I've got no gripes about volunteering."

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