Testimony of Howard B. Urnovitz, Ph.D. (2/2/00)

House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform - Subcommittee on
National Security, Veterans' Affairs and International Relations

Howard B. Urnovitz, Ph.D. -- 02/02/2000

I am grateful to the Committee for allowing me the opportunity to review the GAO report on Gulf War Illnesses: Management Actions Needed to Answer Basic Research Questions and for inviting me to present my views and recommendations on research directions for Persian Gulf War Related Illnesses or GWS, Gulf War Syndrome. My name is Dr. Howard B. Urnovitz. I received my doctorate degree in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Michigan in 1979. My entire CV is submitted with my written testimony. I currently hold the position of Scientific Director of the Chronic Illness Research Foundation as well as my current position as Chief Science Officer and Director of a publicly traded biomedical company.

With respect to my views on government research programs concerning GWS, I concur with the GAO report that many of the research objectives identified by the Research Working Group of the Persian Gulf Veterans' Coordinating Board have not been reached. Some of the government-funded epidemiological studies, particularly those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Texas Southwestern, have been very meaningful. Most of the government-funded research conducted thus far, however, has focused on trying to quantify exposures with little or no data, identifying single exposure agents as the sole causative factor, or summarizing the research of others. The identification of the range of toxic exposures would assist greatly in determining the array of causative factors associated with GWS. Today, we already have a great deal information on the potential exposures during the Gulf War. Unfortunately, since a significant amount of the data was not collected, we will never know with any degree of certainty what the extent and combination of the exposures were in the case of each individual patient. Further, identification of these exposures alone will not reveal the disease mechanisms involved the progression of these illnesses.

Identifying the disease mechanism has been the focus of our research. I recommend that Congress strongly encourage the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services to fully acknowledge non-government funded, published, peer-reviewed independent research to further expand the total information base on GWS. I am concerned that we in the independent research community do not have a structure for free dialog with government agencies and researchers. To exclude these contributions to science is not productive.

The GAO report recognizes medical science's conventional approach to chronic illnesses. The paradigm continues to be a search for a single causative agent. The weakness in this conceptual approach is that most chronic diseases are multifactorial. This single causative agent approach was formulated long before science recognized that the human body can sustain damage at the cellular and molecular level from a variety of physical, chemical, or biological insults, and long before we determine the vast arrays of hazardous materials to which these veterans were exposed. Assigning any one entity as the causative agent will impede any progress in designing medical control of a chronic disorder.

I thank the Subcommittee for recognizing the contributions my colleagues and I have made to the GWS medical literature. It is my hope that our unique approach to understanding Gulf War Illnesses may serve as a platform for research into other chronic ailments. My colleagues and I approach GWS like most other chronic illnesses by asking the following question: what is common among people who suffer from chronic illnesses? For brevity, I will summarize our research findings, published in 6 peer-reviewed papers in 1999 on four different diseases. One of these papers is attached to my written testimony.

It would appear that the human body has a mechanism for confronting toxic exposures. We all know that we are given our physical characteristics from genetic material or genes; one set of genes received from each parent. What we learned by simultaneously studying GWS, cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis is that the genes have the ability to "reshuffle" and create new genes. We reason that these new genes are used to adapt to the toxic environment in which we live. It seems that there are confounding events that turns this reshuffling mechanism from a normal protective process to a disease state. One of the next phases in our research plan is to determine what events trigger these reshuffled genes to convert from helpful to harmful.

Through a research blood test we recently developed, we have been able to identify material in the sera of patients suffering from chronic illnesses that likely play a critical role both as a marker of the illnesses and a mechanism for the reshuffling. This discovery of the reshuffling process resulted from the identification and analyses of a type of nucleic acid, RNA, found in the serum or plasma of GWS veterans. It took us several years to break the code on just one RNA molecule that we were able to isolate. It has been our goal to collect RNA from as many veterans with GWS and clone, decode and catalog the reshuffled genes with respect to patient symptomology. This approach should allow us to group ailments according to the pattern of each gene sequence. The modern marvel of mapping the normal human genome is close to completion. We plan to initiate our own program mapping the detours that the human genome takes with respect to toxic exposure and chronic disease. The ensuing catalog of reshuffled genes should assist in establishing diagnostic protocols and tailoring treatments for each patient.

The single greatest obstacle to achieving this goal with respect to the veterans has been the lack of sufficient private sector funding for research into an issue that most people believe is the responsibility of the government.

I include supporting testimony from my colleague, Prof. Luc Montagnier. Prof. Montagnier's laboratories, with 4 decades' experience with evaluating the biological and medical significance of RNA, led the research effort into the discovery of the AIDS associated viruses: HIV-1, HIV-2 and HIV-1 group O. We jointly concur that to understand the origin of the disease associated RNAs in GWS, a major effort be launched on understanding a family of genes referred to as retroelements. Retroelements make up over 6% of the genes in the human body and appear to be central to the origin of disease associated RNA.

I would like to state for the record that it is my professional opinion that the clues to solving significant medical problems in the world today -- cancers, AIDS, heart and liver diseases, autoimmune and neurologic disorders, vaccine safety, chemical injuries, and military associated ailments -- lie in the blood of these veterans who suffer from GWS and possibly in the blood of their families. Once we break and catalog the code of the reshuffled RNA, we may finally have a clear direction in how to treat chronic illnesses. The Gulf War veterans will become heroes again for a second time.

I ask that the full text of my statement along with a prepared statement from my colleague Professor Montagnier be submitted for inclusion in the record of the hearing.