From pacemakers to the nicotine patch: The life-changing medical discoveries under the VA’s belt

gettyimages 463580654 From pacemakers to the nicotine patch: The life changing medical discoveries under the VAs belt

A file photo shows a scientist working in a lab. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

The first implantable cardiac pacemaker was in 1958, new techniques in cardiovascular surgery happened in 1963.  Then in 1968, the first successful liver transplant took place followed by the discovery of leukemia and cancer-causing viruses in 1974.  The nicotine patch rolled out in 1984, a new vaccine for shingles in 2005, artificial pancreas in 2012, the standing wheelchair in 2015 and a new drug to fight hepatitis C in 2016.

This seemingly random list of life-changing medical discoveries all have one thing in common – VA’s Office of Research and Development.

For more than 90 years, Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development has been focused on the everyday health needs and concerns of veterans.  Three Nobel Prize and seven Lasker award winners have contributed to not just the health and well-being of American veterans, but to humans in general, and OR&D doesn’t show any signs of slowing down either.

A current study at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System is working on a nasal spray to reduce pain for veterans living with post-traumatic stress (PTS) or alcohol use disorder.  Veterans are diagnosed with PTS and alcohol use disorder more often than the general US population.

Dr. Nicholas Gilpin, who’s projects was one of 111 selected for funding (out of 466 reviewed) said, “My hope is that our lab can provide evidence for MC4 receptor signaling as a viable target to reduce pain in veterans living with PTSD or addiction.”

Another study in the works, run by Navy veteran Dr. James M. Donahue at the VA Maryland Health Care System, is to improve the survival outcomes for patients with esophageal cancer.  The VA reported a 40% hike of esophageal cancer in veterans from 1995 to 2005.

The fundamental goal of my research effort is to improve the survival outcomes for patients, “said Donahue.  He and his team are doing this by trying to define the roles and mechanisms of molecules called microRNAs.  These molecules contribute to cancer growth and chemotherapy resistance.

donahue or picture 730x410 From pacemakers to the nicotine patch: The life changing medical discoveries under the VAs belt

Dr. James M. Donahue, VA surgeon-researcher and Navy veteran works to improve the survival outcomes for veterans with esophageal cancer. (VA photo)

Sticking with cancer research, the VA team at Columbia, Missouri’s Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital is working with the Sprouty2 gene.  This gene puts out a protein that suppresses tumor spreading in breast, prostate and liver cancers, but in colorectal cancer, it helps tumors grow and move to other parts of the body.

It’s not all about cancer research at the VA though.  Researchers at the VA’s San Diego Healthcare System are working on a study involving older adults with a hoarding disorder.  Around 2 – 6 percent of Americans show hoarding symptoms, and the rate can be up to three times higher in older adults.   The VA has discovered that treatment with cognitive rehabilitation and exposure/sorting therapy (CREST) has a 13 point increase of improvement over the traditional case management treatment.

Another study going on at the San Diego Healthcare System found that soldiers who reported childhood abuse or neglect had higher odds of suicidal thoughts or attempt over their lifetime.  More frequent and pervasive mistreatment was more strongly associated with suicidal behavior.  According to VA’s researchers, focusing on childhood abuse might lead to new ways to reduce suicide risks among new soldiers.

Here’s a list of areas being studied by VA researchers.  And if you are interested in taking part of a VA research program and you already get your care through the VA Healthcare System, the Million Veteran Program is a good starting point.  The data collected by MVP is kept anonymously for research on diseases like diabetes, cancer, and military-related illnesses.

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