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VA hopes to revitalize Waco research program after troubled past

By JEREMY SCHWARTZ | Austin American-Statesman (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 19, 2017

The Department of Veterans Affairs will look to reboot its once troubled Waco Center of Excellence research program as it inaugurates a long-awaited, 53,000-square-foot facility during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

The new facility — with enough space for 100 staff members and trainees, a custom-built laboratory wing and numerous examination rooms — will tackle a number of research projects involving traumatic brain injury, Gulf War illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries suffered by returning war veterans. So far there are 69 staff and faculty members working in the building.

“Waco’s (Center of Excellence) is a flagship of the VA research world,” VA officials said in a statement. “The Waco team is also training the next generation of clinical scientists who will continue to improve the health and well-being of veterans through world-class clinical care.”

The $10 million permanent home for the Center of Excellence was originally supposed to debut in 2011 after a groundbreaking ceremony eight years ago. But after the Arkansas-based contractor defaulted on the construction, progress was delayed by litigation, VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen said. The building was eventually finished by the bonding company and a new contractor, Jacobsen said.

Hopes are high that Thursday’s ribbon-cutting represents a more positive path for the center after its first years were marked by failed research projects, questionable spending and missed opportunities to study Fort Hood soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, the VA’s Office of Inspector General declared that initial research efforts under a previous leadership team represented “a waste of taxpayers’ funds” and were an example of “poor stewardship.”

In a response to the inspectors’ findings, then-VA Undersecretary of Health David Shulkin, who was recently chosen as VA secretary by President Donald Trump, said the department had started a redesign of the entire VA supply chain and changed how it manages such high-tech medical equipment as the Waco MRI system.

A 2014 American-Statesman investigation revealed the VA had squandered an opportunity for combat-related research at the center by purchasing a cutting-edge mobile brain scanner without a clear plan for success, failing to recruit enough brain imaging experts to make it work and allowing internal squabbles to paralyze the project. The MRI machine sat unused for years while the VA spent more than $200,000 in annual maintenance between 2008 and 2015. VA inspectors confirmed the scanner hadn’t contributed to any research studies as of 2015.

A subsequent Statesman investigation found that researchers strayed from their core mission of focusing on psychological war injuries and instead studied such topics as Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and autism.

Since the newspaper’s investigation, the VA has rebuilt its staff at the center, hiring several researchers to lead its MRI and neuroimaging section, according to officials.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco, at one point suggested moving federal research out of the Center of Excellence but said in 2015 that he changed his view after meeting with new leaders and being assured that researchers would “return to their mission of serving veterans first.”

Researchers are still using the original mobile scanner, but are planning to replace it this year with a new fixed unit that has already been purchased, Jacobsen said.

According to a list of current projects at the center, researchers are studying a series of topics, including how blast-related brain injuries damage white matter pathways and disrupt communication across large networks of the brain; the effectiveness of transcranial magnetic stimulation on patients with PTSD or depression; and the role of neuroinflammation in veterans who have experienced trauma, particularly the steroid marinobufagenin, which is involved in initiating and sustaining inflammation and vascular damage.

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©2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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