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VA recruits one millionth veteran for its genetic research database

The millionth veterinarian joined the database on the afternoon of November 8. Employees who had been waiting for this moment for a dozen years cried.

As the goal approached, the department launched an intensive email campaign, encouraging veterinarians to register online or at VA medical centers. In the few weeks leading up to the arrival of the millionth veterinarian, what amounted to a few hundred registrants per day turned into thousands. The department created a ticker, which it posted online, showing the numbers.

“This is a gift to the world,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA will continue to enroll more veterinarians in the database, but this was a symbolic moment.

For years, researchers have been creating large databases for genetic research. Using them, they discovered, for example, genes that appear to confer resistance to dementia and others that most likely contribute to obesity. The discoveries pave the way for understanding these diseases and developing treatments.

There are other large genetic databases, but they were mostly built in Europe and include few minorities. The VA says its database offers a more diverse population: 175,000 people of African descent and 80,000 Hispanics have joined the Million Veteran program. The database also includes 100,000 women.

“This is a massive investment and scientific opportunity,” said Dr. Amit V. Khera, a genetics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is not a VA researcher, but he has used the data in collaborations with researchers affiliated with the department.

As the database acquired participants, approximately 600 VA researchers signed up to use it. To date, more than 350 articles have been published on diseases and disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, high blood pressure and non-alcoholic liver disease.

For example, said Dr. Sumitra Muralidhar, director of the Million Veteran Program, researchers have discovered genes linked to flashbacks of traumatic events, a hallmark of post-traumatic stress. Now, Dr. Muralidhar said, researchers can study these genes and the role they play, which could help develop treatments for PTSD.

The department also says it is concerned about patient privacy. Although researchers can review genetic and other data and links to medical records, fewer than 10 people at the VA have the links that connect records to individuals. Those records, Dr. Muralidhar said, are kept in a “highly secure” Boston facility.

In 2019, a nurse at a VA hospital told Octavia Harris, 60, of San Antonio, about the Million Veteran program. She signed up and said participating was a chance to help other veterinarians and herself.

Harris, who retired from the Navy in 2012 after 30 years of service, said her family suffered from three illnesses: diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis. She hopes that with her genetic and health information added to that of so many others, researchers will make useful discoveries.

In her family, Ms. Harris said, people died young.

“We didn’t live past 70,” she said. “I want to be over 70.”

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