6:02 p.m. ET (2202 GMT) May 3, 1999
WASHINGTON, May 3 - Scientists said on Monday they may have found a mechanism that could explain Gulf War illness, a mysterious syndrome that many veterans around the world have complained of.
The researchers say chemicals the veterans were exposed to could have caused a genetic reshuffling - activating part of the immune system to cause the symptoms of fatigue, rashes, muscle pain and a litany of other vaguely defined ills.
Howard Urnovitz, of the nonprofit Chronic Illness Research Foundation and California-based Calypte Biomedical Corp., thinks his theory could explain other chronic illnesses, from some cases of cancer to multiple sclerosis.
Many experts have dismissed Gulf War syndrome as a nonexistent illness, in part because the sufferers do not seem to have in common exposure to any one microbe or chemical.
"Gulf War Syndrome is like most chronic illnesses - it has been difficult to link hazardous exposures to clinical symptoms," Urnovitz said.
But he and colleagues, writing in the journal Clinical and Diagnostic
Laboratory Immunology, published by the American Society for
Microbiology, said researchers may have been looking in the wrong place.
"Identifying which veterans were exposed to each hazardous compound, in which combinations and at what levels is no longer possible," James Tuite, of the Chronic Illness Research Foundation, said in a statement. "It is possible, however, to identify the nature of the physical damage suffered as a result of exposure to these known hazardous materials." Tuite said it might be possible to minimise this damage if it is understood.
They think veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War were exposed to chemicals, such as pesticides, medicines given against chemical warfare agents and smoke from oil-well fires, which activated their immune systems. One component of the immune system allows cells to "recognize" bacteria, viruses or parasites that have invaded before. These so-called memory cells rearrange their DNA through a cut-and-paste process to match the invaders.
It is this ability to cut and paste DNA that Urnovitz thinks may get activated after exposure to chemicals.
His team looked at the serum of 24 Gulf War veterans and 50 people matched for age and sex who did not serve.
They found RNA in the serum of the veterans. RNA is not supposed to be in the serum, which is the liquid that carries blood cells, Urnovitz said.
The basic genetic material is DNA, which "codes" for the production of proteins. But DNA cannot make proteins. It employs RNA to do this, but it had been thought that RNA could not survive outside a cell or virus. There was no RNA in the serum of the 50 controls. Urnovitz thinks the RNA gets released when the immune system revs up its cut-and-paste reaction.
"We postulate that disease symptoms occur depending on what the cell does with this new RNA," he said in an interview.
"If it reverses it to DNA, and places it near an oncogene, (cancer-causing gene), cancer can start," he added.
"If the new RNA makes a protein that the body has never seen before, this (can cause) autoimmunity - multiple sclerosis, lupus, diabetes and possibly chronic fatigue syndrome. If the RNA travels from the seminal fluid to the ovum (egg), this may result in birth defects."
In fact, the bits of RNA might act like a kind of virus, Urnovitz said. Some viruses are little more than bags of RNA.
The floating RNA looked like it came from one region of one chromosome known as 22q11.2, which Urnovitz said was known as a "hot spot" for rearranged DNA.
"These results suggest that genetic alterations in the 22q11.2 region, possibly induced by exposures to environmental (toxins) during the Persian Gulf War, may have played a role in the pathogenesis of Gulf War Syndrome," Urnovitz's team wrote in their report.
Although the study does not show the chemicals caused the genetic changes, Urnovitz believes it suggests a mechanism.
"Our studies in Gulf War Syndrome, cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis
have focused on looking for common mechanisms rather than causative agents,"