Call them VA’s “super sleuths” — only the codes they crack have more to do with genetics, and the killers they hunt go by the names of “cancer” and “heart disease.” The microscopes they work with are far too heavy to carry, and the coats they wear are not khaki trench, but laboratory white.
They are the more than 3,400 VA researchers nationwide whose meticulous work, piecing together “clues,” has led to health care breakthroughs, discoveries and treatments that improve the lives of Veterans and others. And for nearly 90 years, they’ve been working cases that would have made even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle blush!
Chances are, you or someone you know, has benefitted from their work.
The list of accomplishments includes: therapies for tuberculosis following World War II; the implantable cardiac pacemaker; computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans; functional electrical stimulation systems that allow patients to move paralyzed limbs; the nicotine patch; the first successful liver transplants; the first powered ankle-foot prosthesis; and a vaccine for shingles.
VA researchers also found that one aspirin a day reduces by half the rate of death and nonfatal heart attacks in patients with unstable angina. More recently, VA investigators tested an insulin nasal spray that shows great promise in warding off Alzheimer’s disease, and found that prazosin (a well-tested generic drug used to treat high blood pressure and prostate problems) can help improve sleep and lessen nightmares for those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Three VA researchers received Nobel Prizes: Dr. Andrew Schally for his research on peptide hormone production in the brain; Dr. Rosalyn Yalow for her development of radioimmunoassay to detect and measure various substances in the bloodstream; and Dr. Ferid Murad for his discoveries relating to nitric oxide, a body chemical that helps maintain healthy blood vessels.
VA Research, as part of VA’s integrated health care system – with its state-of-the-art electronic health records –has come to be viewed as a model for superior bench-to-bedside research. Overseeing this activity is VA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), which is made up of four key divisions: biomedical (basic) research; clinical studies; rehabilitation; and health services research, which studies issues such as quality and delivery of care.
If you dig into ORD’s history, the discoveries continue: VA researchers invented a computer system that provides patients on ventilators with more accurate respirator settings, fewer medical complications, and better outcomes. You’ll also learn about a first-of-its-kind study done at VA medical centers to optimize the design of an advanced prosthetic arm, made by DEKA Research and Development through funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Or, you might read about a landmark cooperative study on hypertension, which demonstrated that drug treatment is effective in controlling blood pressure and reducing the incidence of major cardiovascular events.
VA’s tuberculosis studies in 1946 were among the first-ever large-scale clinical trials, and they led to the Cooperative Studies Program, which has since produced effective treatments for diseases and conditions including schizophrenia, diabetes, depression, heart disease and stroke.
The role VA Research plays in health care for Veterans and advancing medical science is remarkable and ongoing. Researchers and volunteers work on thousands of studies at VA medical centers, outpatient clinics and nursing homes.
VA Research has developed collaborative work with academic affiliates, nonprofits and other federal agencies. For example, VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) have worked together for more than 20 years through the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. Recently, VA and DoD collaborated to form the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD (CAP), which will focus on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of PTSD, and the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium (CENC), which will study concussion or mild TBI, and possible links to neurodegenerative diseases.
How does VA Research determine its research agenda? As part of its strategic planning process, ORD seeks input from a number of key stakeholder groups, including scientific medical experts, advisory groups, Veterans, and Veterans Service Organizations.
Veterans volunteer to participate in research projects, knowing that there may not be a direct benefit to their health. They do so, in many cases, with the hope of benefiting others in the future. Still, participants have a right to change their minds at any time. For more information about participating in research, see www.research.va.gov/resources/pubs/docs/volunteering-in-research-brochure.pdf.
What are some of the studies and initiatives to watch for in the coming year? In addition to the DoD-VA consortia, here’s a snapshot of what VA researchers are doing:
- Across the country, VA researchers have joined with VHA clinical and operational partners in 19 new Centers of Innovation, or COINs, to ensure that research has the greatest possible impact on VHA policies, health care practices and health outcomes for Veterans. http://www.hsrd.research.va.gov/centers/
- Through VA’s Cooperative Studies Program, researchers are also involved in the “Health ViEWS” study (Health of Vietnam Era Women’s Study), which focuses on the physical health of women who served in the Vietnam era, as well as on their current level of disability. http://www.research.va.gov/programs/csp/csp579.cfm
- There’s also the Million Veteran Program, which seeks to study the effects that genes have on Veterans’ health, by building one of the world’s largest databases of health and genetic information. www.research.va.gov/MVP
From biomedical research in the laboratory to clinical application in a doctor’s office, VA research has an important impact on treating and preventing disease and disability. Significant findings from thousands of studies keep surfacing – findings about cholesterol, hearing aids, PTSD, angina, Alzheimer’s disease, genomic medicine, sleep apnea, diabetes – and the list goes on.
So, if you’re looking for a compelling mystery to read while chasing away these chill winter days, be sure to visit the VA Research website at www.research.va.gov, and follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/varesearch.