Nearly a half million veterans have rolled up their sleeves for science as the Veterans Affairs Department shoots to build the largest blood repository in the world.
The VA's Boston-based Million Veterans Program is advancing the research on DNA mapping to better understand genetic markers linked to illnesses such as cancers, heart disease, post-traumatic stress and mental health conditions.
According to VA officials, the department is collecting the blood samples and medical histories of donors and feeding the information into a vast database to be used by civilian, academic and government researchers across the globe.
"We are creating a massive central resource, and the investigators will come to us," Million Veterans Program principal investigator Dr. J. Michael Gaziano explained. "We already are running some test cases to learn how to build the computing environment that allows researchers to come together and use this resource."
More than 440,000 veterans already have furnished blood to the program. Earlier this month, VA Secretary Bob McDonald, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, who served in the Army for five years, became the 441,196th.
"To me, the Million Veteran Program is one of our premier research programs," McDonald said after his blood draw. "It's fundamental to the precision medicine initiative that the president has been leading."
Precision medicine is the field of medical treatment tailored to a patient's condition, DNA makeup, environment and overall health. Experts believe advances in such personalized care will lead to more effective treatments for disease.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 12, President Obama called for $215 million in funding for the Precision Medicine Initiative, including $70 million toward a cancer research "moon shot" — an effort to cure cancer within a decade, much as the United States put a man on the moon just eight years after President Kennedy announced the intention to do so.
The Million Veterans Program will be a part of the cancer and disease research already underway and in the future, according to Gaziano.
"There is the possibility to study any and all diseases. We think VA can play a valuable role," he said.
Veterans make excellent donors for such scientific research because they have detailed medical records to accompany their samples, with some records dating back 40 years, according to VA officials.
The medical records, along with answers to questionnaires completed by donors on their lifestyle choices and environmental exposures, including combat experience, provide valuable context to researchers, Gaziano said.
The VA cannot simply use any patient's blood sample for the program. All veterans must volunteer to participate in the Million Veterans Program, agreeing to share their medical records and experiences.
The identities of all donors are kept secret from researchers. Samples are stored in a secure database and labeled with a code rather than a veteran's name, and no identifying information is attached to the data accessed by researchers, according to the VA.
The program already has 1.8 million vials of blood components from veterans, including red blood cells, white blood cells and plasma. The biorepository currently receives about 100,000 new samples a year, and VA officials hope a partnership with the Defense Department could increase the number of donors to reach the million-veteran mark by 2020, Gaziano said.
The samples are stored at the VA's biorepository at VA Medical Center Boston. VA officials are hoping to build a second storage site equipped with the same state-of-the-art system for DNA extraction in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that would bring capacity to 4 million samples from a broad spectrum of donors.
"When you do this type of research, you really want to have your samples spread out across the population," Gaziano said.
The $130 million project already eclipses other genetic material repositories in the U.S., including Kaiser Permanente's Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health, which has about 100,000 samples of saliva and blood from participating patients.
And it is closing in on the number of samples kept by the United Kingdom's Biobank, a repository containing blood and urine samples and health data from half a million people.
While the aim is to have 1 million stored samples, VA is not waiting to reach that milestone before researchers access the repository database.
Test projects already underway include studies of heart disease risk factors, genetic markers for schizophrenia and bipolar disease, and the risks of chronic use of alcohol, tobacco and opioid medications.
Gaziano said the studies will help veterans and civilians alike, and he is grateful for those who decide to participate.
"The thing we hear from our veteran partners is that this is an opportunity for them to serve their brother veterans," Gaziano said.
Veterans can participate by walking in to a VA clinic or hospital that is designated as a Million Veterans Program collection site. The donation takes about 20 minutes.
According to VA officials, a veteran's participation may change the way all diseases are treated in the future.
"It's really helpful to all mankind to unravel the conundrum of how genes work," Gaziano said.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans' health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.