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Antibodies found in sick soldiers

February 25, 2000

Judith Zwolak

It's the ultimate irony that an effort to protect the health of U.S. soldiers deployed in the Gulf War in the early 1990s now may be making them sick. Robert Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology, has found that a high percentage of veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome who participated in a recent study tested positive for antibodies to squalene, a lipid that naturally occurs in the body.

His research was published in the February issue of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Garry hypothesizes that the intensive series of vaccines soldiers received before they went to the Persian Gulf may have caused tissue damage, resulting in the release of squalene to stimulate the body's immunity.

"It could be that the inflammation from the vaccines caused tissue disruption and resulted in an autoimmune response, in this case, the release of squalene," Garry says. The research is the latest step toward finding an answer to the mysterious illness known as Gulf War Syndrome.

The puzzling sickness is marked by an array of symptoms including fatigue, muscle and joint pain and memory loss. Although some reports say 100,000 veterans of the Persian Gulf War complain of these symptoms, researchers have not been able to find a direct cause of the illness.

In an article last year in the medical research journal The Lancet, researchers sorted through the possible causes of Gulf War Syndrome and found a correlation between the sick veterans and the vaccines they received.
"The Lancet piece was based on a very strong epidemiological study that pointed to vaccines," Garry says. "People who got the shots, especially in a short period of time, were the ones that were most likely to develop the illness."

Garry credits his co-author, Pamela Asa, an independent researcher in Memphis, for advancing the theory that a component of the myriad vaccines the soldiers received before deployment may hold the key to the illness. Because it is a natural part of the human immune system, squalene is also used as an adjuvant to boost the immune response of some experimental vaccines, so Asa and Garry set out to test whether the bodies of sick veterans reacted to squalene as well as other vaccine adjuvants.

"Squalene has been used as a component of several different vaccines, and it's been shown to cause some of the same problems that many of the Gulf War veterans had," Garry says. "We screened several adjuvant compounds in a blinded study, and squalene was the one that turned out to give a good result."

The researchers then extended their study to include more veterans (both with and without the illness), a control group of blood donors and people suffering from other similar autoimmune diseases,illnesses in which the body attacks itself. The research subjects included 144 Gulf War veterans or military employees, 48 blood donors, 40 lupus patients, 34 silicone breast implant recipients and 30 chronic fatigue syndrome patients. They found that 95 percent of ill patients who had been deployed in the Persian Gulf had antibodies to squalene.

Futhermore, all six of the military personnel who were sick but did not deploy had antibodies. These six had received the same vaccinations as those who traveled to the Gulf. No patients with the other autoimmune diseases and no one in the healthy control group showed detectable squalene antibodies, the researchers reported.

The Pentagon has said that none of the vaccines given to military personnel contained squalene as an adjuvant, although some veterans groups have questioned the truth of the government's assertions.

"There are other explanations as to why the vets might be making anti-squalene antibodies," Garry says. "It's not really necessary to invoke a conspiracy where the government has used untested adjuvant."

Garry's research doesn't show whether the antibodies are causing the illness or just serving as a marker of the disease. "In some other autoimmune diseases, we know the antibodies are directly pathogenic," he says. "In other cases, it may be just a sign that the disease process is going on."

Tulane has licensed the blood test they devised to detect the antibody to Autoimmune Technologies, a local firm that develops medical-research tools. The company is currently seeking a patent on the test. "Tulane has licensed some of its technologies to them," Garry says. "It's one of the few biotechnology companies in New Orleans, so I think Tulane tries to support the local economy by giving them access to some of the technologies we develop here."

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