Gulf War Illness Update By Paul M. Rodriguez

A peer-reviewed article by Tulane University researchers confirming the presence of squalene in the blood of gulf-war veterans has spurred Congress to demand answers from the Pentagon.

At least 10 senior members of Congress recently sent Defense Secretary William Cohen a stern letter about the Pentagon’s failure to take seriously a newly discovered bio-marker that may help explain the mysterious illness known as gulf-war syndrome, or GWS. This latest escalation of tension between Congress and the Department of Defense, or DOD, follows news that the Department of Microbiology at the Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans has published in the February issue of Experimental and Molecular Pathology a groundbreaking study on the discovery of exotic antibodies to a substance called squalene that appear only in troops of the gulf-war era — both those who served overseas and those who never left the United States.
       Immunologist Robert F. Garry, leader of the Tulane study group, and Tennessee microbiologist Pamela Asa reported in their peer-reviewed article that they found the squalene antibodies only in the blood of sick soldiers who had been given the full complement of immunizations (see “Breakthrough on Gulf War Illness,” April 19, 1999). The speculation for more than two years has been that the troops were given an experimental immunization that contained an adjuvant with squalene. The DOD repeatedly denied this despite compelling circumstantial evidence to the contrary.
       Squalene, which is found naturally in the human body and is believed to be involved with creation of cholesterol, is considered by DOD scientists and the National Institutes of Health to be a potentially promising adjuvant to boost the effectiveness of some medicines. It is being tested experimentally in potential anti-HIV, antimalaria and antianthrax immuniza-tions by military and civilian Pentagon contractors.
       Because of extreme side effects strikingly similar to the autoimmune symptoms complained of by gulf-war veterans, the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has limited squalene’s use on humans to experimental research and then only in highly controlled tests approved by the FDA under the rules im-posed on investigational new drugs, or INDs. The DOD has several such INDs, with collaborators working experimentally on squalene-related drugs. However, Pentagon brass and spokesmen initially denied this when Insight began asking questions about a correlation between the dysfunctions soldiers were experiencing and the previously unknown military tests using the squalene adjuvants.
       There is sure to be a furor following the latest round of congressional criticism of the Pentagon — and Cohen in particular — for refusal to work with Tulane as directed last year by Congress in an appropriations bill (see news alert!, Dec. 13, 1999).
       The position of DOD has been that, since it never used squalene in any inoculation administered to gulf-war era veterans, it would be a waste of time to pursue what its spokesmen have called “junk science” by Tulane. The DOD also has said that because the Garry-Asa research had not yet been peer-reviewed, it was suspect.
       Now that one of the bibles in molecular medicine has published and peer-reviewed the Tulane research, Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf of Washington state and nine other leading congressmen have called on Cohen to get off his duff. “We will insist that DOD do an unbiased analysis of this study,” Metcalf tells Insight. He says that, while DOD claims to have begun internal reviews of the issue, that action is insufficient and unacceptable. “It does not constitute the kind of science that those who sacrificed for this nation deserve,” Metcalf says.
       By press time DOD had no immediate reply.