For three years, the Miami VA Healthcare System has recruited volunteers for a national project to build a genetic database to help research how genes affect health and develop new treatments for both veterans and non-veterans.
So far, 10,000 veterans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have donated blood samples as part of the Million Veteran Program. Nationally, more than 330,000 have participated, representing about one-third of the goal of 1 million samples for the largest Department of Veterans Affairs research program in history.
Launched in 2011, the data gathered from genetic analysis, surveys and medical records and presented in a single database will provide researchers with a valuable collection of health and military-exposure material.
“When we are finished, this is going to be the world’s largest repository for genetic information,’’ said Dr. Hermes Florez, director of the Miami VA’s Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center. “With this data, we can make critical links of genetics to chronic conditions.”
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The collected data is stored at a Boston facility and will be made available for studies by authorized researchers. Safeguards are in place to protect veterans’ identities and private health information.
Researchers from the VA, federal health agencies and academic institutions are able to use the data to help answer questions about health conditions including military-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain injury and even exposure to Agent Orange. In Miami, researchers will focus on several illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, which are common within the local veteran population.
The first batch of 200,000 blood samples is now being processed to create genetic profiles.
The Miami VA — serving about 50,000 veterans — hopes to recruit another 10,000 participants within the next two years and may expand the campaign to Palm Beach and Monroe counties. Currently, the VA collects 80 to 100 samples per week at the Miami-Dade and Broward facilities. The majority of the veterans are aged 50 to 79 years old.
The data will also be used to further develop the field of personalized medicine, which works to customize medical care based on people’s individual genetic profiles and characteristics.
“If we can look at the commonalities among some genes, that can help us determine the most effective therapies,’’ said Florez, also a University of Miami professor of medicine and public health. “We can figure out the pharmaceutical treatments that work.”
Participation in the VA program
Veterans currently receiving care in the Miami VA healthcare system are eligible to be part of the program. For more information about the Million Veteran Program, visit www.research.va.gov/MVP.