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Arnold School of Public Health

Saurabh Chatterjee receives $2.4 million VA Merit Award to study treatment implications for veterans with Gulf War Illness

October 17, 2018 | Erin Bluvas,

Environmental health sciences associate professor Saurabh Chatterjee has been awarded a $2.4 million, five-year grant from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. He will use the funding to better understand how immune and inflammatory priming exacerbates responses to Gulf War Illness (GWI) stressors.

Previous research has already established the link between military deployment during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War and numerous chronic health symptoms and disorders (e.g., headache, cognitive difficulties, neuroinflammation, debilitating fatigue, widespread pain, respiratory problems, sleep problems, gastrointestinal problems, other unexplained medical abnormalities). Even today, GWI affects 25-32 percent of the 700,000 United States veterans who served in the first Gulf War. The chronic persistence and/or worsening of these individuals’ symptoms has proven challenging for both patients and clinicians to fully understand and manage.

Two decades of scientific research has traced GWI to the chemical exposures and drugs taken during deployment. These exposures alter the bacterial content in the gut, which is also known as the microbiome. The affected microbiota produce endotoxins, which pass through the lining of the gut and into the blood where they circulate throughout the body. Once the compounds travel to various parts of the body, they trigger an inflammatory response, which causes many of the symptoms associated with GWI.

“Unequivocal evidence exists that an alteration of the gut microbiome can have far-reaching consequences in causing multiple organ pathologies including sustained hyperinflammation, gastrointestinal disturbances, chronic fatigue and neurocognitive dysfunction,” says Chatterjee. “These findings suggest that there may be a compelling case to investigate the role of inflammasome, which is responsible for the activation of inflammatory responses, and its link to microbiome alterations as a likely cause of GW symptoms associated sustained hyperinflammation.”

With this project, which includes co-investigators from the Arnold School, Boston University and Nova Southeastern, Chatterjee and his team will investigate whether Gulf War chemical exposure triggers inflammasome, which alters the microbiota and leads to sustained neuroimmune activation and symptom persistence. The researchers will study these connections both in a lab setting and with veterans recruited from members of the GWI Consortia in Boston and Miami VA Medical Centers. Members of an existing Gulf War veteran cohort will be contacted to participate as well. 

Among its many specific aims, the project will incorporate the study of causes and symptoms experienced by female veterans, which have not been fully examined previously. Another novel element within the present study is its focus on identifying innovative therapeutic targets to reveal possible causes of GWI and pave the way for new treatment options.

“Our study provides new hope for rapid therapy methodology in clinics,” says Chatterjee. “Knowledge about each veteran’s microbial and metabolic composition can be utilized for a personalized approach to medicine in clinics when treating GWI. Our findings should significantly advance our understanding of GWI persistence and expand the potential therapy options for our veterans.”

Chatterjee is the director of the Environmental Health and Disease Laboratory, where he and his team study how environmental toxins contribute to liver disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity. For the duration of this new grant, he will serve as a dual employee at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We are excited to welcome Dr. Chatterjee to our research program at the WJB Dorn VA Medical Center,” says WJB Dorn VA Medical Center associate chief of staff Sue Haddock. His research is critical so that our clinicians will be able to better treat the chronic conditions experienced by many of the Gulf War veterans. The VA’s collaboration with USC exemplifies how together we can do better.”


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