The Phoenix VA Health Care System’s Office of Research and Development enrolled its 20,000 participant into the Million Veteran Program (MVP) in early August, making it the third VA to reach its enrollment goal.
The national research project, funded by the VA’s Office of Research and Development, began in 2011 and currently is the largest genomic database in the world with 592,932 Veteran volunteers nationwide.
“The purpose is to study both health and disease in Veterans,” said Providencia Morales, a registered nurse and program manager of Phoenix’s four-person MVP team. “The goal is to find those links, find a correlation between illnesses and genes. So, we’re looking at not only clinical data, but environmental and genomics data. We will use all this data to develop better ways to detect and prevent illnesses.”
Morales said the VA’s Office of Research and Development is currently using genetic information to look at more common diseases like cardiovascular, kidney diseases and macular eye degeneration. She added the ORD is also studying mental health diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the idea of the MVP database was initially met with skepticism.
“Genetic research, until MVP, was considered heresy by some,” said Dr. Samuel Aguayo, the chief of research at the Phoenix VA. “There was a fear of abuse and discrimination. For example, if we know you’re going to have diabetes when you’re 35 years old and that’s going to cost the VA $10 million over your lifetime for care, are you going to be allowed to join the military? That fear is real and is still there. The only reason genetic research is happening now is because patients, scientists and administrators came together and determined the potential benefits outweighed the risk of abuse and discrimination.”
Aguayo said MVP spent three years developing the protocols necessary to ensure the genetic information provided by Veterans would be kept private. Morales added the VA takes extensive safeguards to protect the privacy of all the volunteers. She said no Veteran is identified by name or social security number, and Veteran information is not shared with primary care providers or even placed in a Veteran’s medical record. Aguayo said the Veterans who volunteer for the program are typically enthusiastic about providing their DNA to continue to serve others.
“Everyone who is volunteering now is not volunteering because they expect to gain something for themselves,” Aguayo said. “It’s because they want to contribute to science to help someone in the future – maybe their family or maybe a stranger. That’s why people volunteer.”
The database provides information on a variety of health conditions that are common in Veterans. Roughly 62 percent of the MVP enrollees, nationwide, report a current or past diagnosis of high blood pressure, a third report tinnitus and nearly a third report a history or current cancer diagnosis, according to ORD.
Morales said Veterans understand the value of genetics, adding that many of the Veterans take part in ancestry programs and appreciate there is a lot to be learned about and from genes. She said she’s “humbled by the selflessness and generosity of the Veterans here willing to take part. They understand that what they’re doing is giving back to the future knowledge of science.”
Carol Mercer, a U.S. Army Veteran, said she’s interested in learning how science can improve medicine. She said she volunteered for MVP because she wanted to know the correlation between genetics and a person’s health, adding she thought it was important the VA had a footprint in medical science to help future generations of Veterans.
Morales said even though program office at the Phoenix VA has reached their initial goal, the research team will continue to accept volunteers, adding that any Veterans from any participating VA is eligible to register. She explained the registration process is simple and takes less than 15 minutes. Veterans only need to sign a consent form and provide a blood sample. The Veteran also takes home two surveys they fill out and mail back to the research team.
Morales and Aguayo agreed their team’s success was a joint effort with other services throughout the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Aguayo said help from the Medical Service was vital to reaching their goal.
“Ultimately, the director and medical center leadership had to show how important this program is take part in,” Morales said. “We’ve been supported from the top down – and worked at this like a grassroots effort from the bottom up – until we were able to make the program successful here in Phoenix.”
For more information, Veterans interested in MVP can check out the VA Research website by clicking here.