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Arnold School of Public Health

Saurabh Chatterjee wins second $2.5 million VA Merit Award to develop treatments for chronic multi-symptom illness associated with Gulf War Veterans

August 10, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Three years into his first five-year, $2.4 million VA Merit Award, environmental health sciences associate professor Saurabh Chatterjee has won a second grant from the Veterans Health Administration. This second VA Merit Award includes more than $2.5 million in funding over a four-year period.

The project funded by the first award focuses on understanding how Gulf War chemical exposure alters the gut microbiome, triggering inflammatory and immune responses throughout the body and resulting in Gulf War Illness (GWI). The study includes both lab research and clinical trials with veterans and is the first of its kind to incorporate GWI causes and symptoms experienced by female veterans.

With this new award, Chatterjee and his team at the Environmental Health & Disease Laboratory (as well as collaborators across the Arnold School, UofSC, Midlands and country) will investigate the effectiveness of a new treatment for GWI. Specifically, they will determine whether butyrate supplements can help restore GWI-altered gut microbiome and alleviate associated symptoms.

“Butyrate is a naturally occurring short-chain fatty acid that protects the gut from inflammation and is essential to a balanced microbiome, cellular and DNA health, and blood sugar regulation,” Chatterjee says. “Previous clinical trials have demonstrated that butyrate shows promise for restoring a healthy microbiome and reducing gastrointestinal and neuro-inflammation. Our own preliminary data suggests that veterans with GWI likely have low levels of butyrate, so we have good reason to believe that this supplement could be an effective treatment.”

This new study will involve providing veterans with a butyrate or placebo supplement two times per day using a randomized double-blind clinical control trial design. Chatterjee and his co-investigators will recruit 100 geographically diverse participants from three major VA health centers: WJB Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina (Chatterjee), Miami VA Healthcare System in Miami, Florida (Nancy Klimas), George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah (Ashok Tuteja).

By analyzing biomedical samples and surveying the participants, the researchers will assess the supplement’s effectiveness in treating GWI symptoms, such as headache, cognitive difficulties, neuroinflammation, fatigue, widespread pain, respiratory problems, sleep problems, gastrointestinal problems, and other unexplained medical abnormalities. These chronic health problems and disorders have plagued GW veterans for more than 30 years and currently affect 25-32 percent of the 700,000 U.S. veterans who served between 1990 and 1991.

“Gulf war illness symptoms often persist and worsen over time, proving challenging for both patients and clinicians to fully understand and manage, and take a heavy toll on veterans’ overall quality of life,” Chatterjee says. “Even though several drug candidates have shown promise, thus far, GWI lacks a definitive treatment regimen.”

The Environmental Health & Disease Laboratory has been working to better understand GWI and possible treatments for the past several years. Since Chatterjee established the lab in 2012 with an $800,000 NIH Pathway to Independence Award, he has won a total of $8.4 million to study how environmental toxins contribute to liver disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity. Including the most recent VA Merit Award, $6 million of that funding has focused on GWI.

Despite two decades of scientific research into the connection between GWI and chemical exposures/drugs taken during deployment, none of the studies has fully revealed how this condition affects the body and the best ways to treat it. In a groundbreaking project published in 2017, Chatterjee’s team discovered GWI-altered microbiomes produce endotoxins that circulate throughout the body, causing neurological symptoms.

With additional funding from the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, the lab went on to uncover additional insights into GWI and its possible treatments, such as over-the-counter probiotics and the ancient herbal medicine, androgapholide. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was awarded special funding from the UofSC Office of the Vice President for Research to investigate the enhanced vulnerability of veterans with GWI to the coronavirus.

“I remember when Saurabh joined the Department of Environmental Health Sciences nearly a decade ago, and we shared research space while he set up his lab,” says Thomas Chandler, Dean of the Arnold School and a professor in the department. “Since then, he and his team have made extraordinary contributions to the intersecting fields of human health and environmental toxicology, particularly in the areas of liver disease and Gulf War Illness.”


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