Veterans and VA’s Million Veteran Program were featured as part of the discussion at the White House’s Precision Medicine Initiative Summit on Thursday. In January 2015, President Obama launched the initiative with the bold goal of accelerating biomedical discovery and to give clinicians new tools, knowledge and therapies to tailor treatments to individuals.
As a part of the initiative, VA launched the Million Veteran Program (MVP) to learn how genes affect an individual’s health. The research program aims to improve the health of our Veterans by linking genetic, clinical, lifestyle and military-exposure information, by learning more about the role of genes in health and disease. To date, more than 450,000 Veterans, including the secretary himself, have voluntarily donated blood samples to what is becoming one of the largest genetic databases.
“Our Precision Medicine Initiative has been designed to get all these various building blocks brought together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” President Obama said. “So that, for example, the VA — which has been gathering genomic data on a large number of our men and women who have served this country in order to serve them better within the VA system — can make them connect with researchers at a particular university who are focused on a particular disease, and can we use big data to accelerate the research process much more rapidly.”
Joining the secretary for a panel discussion was Dr. Mike Gaziano, one of the principal investigators of the Million Veteran Program, and Jeannette Mezquita, a Navy Veteran who continues to serve in the Navy Reserves. The panel was moderated by D.J. Patil, the deputy chief technology officer for data policy and the chief data scientist in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Under the care of VA, Mezquita was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. At the request of multiple VA physicians, she went for genetic screening to assess her risk for other cancers. The doctors discovered that she has genetic indicators for high risk of colon cancer.
“For me, finding out, it was a little bit of a shocker, but at the same time it was a blessing because I know that VA does anything for me to prevent any cancer cells from producing,” said Mezquita. Her VA physicians aggressively monitor her health and she has regular colonoscopies to get ahead of the disease. “For me the genetics testing has worked wonders, for my family as well, so I am very grateful for it,” she added.
Because of Veterans’ altruistic nature, they can continue to serve their country, and the next generation of Veterans, by enrolling in MVP.
“I’ve been working in VA in one capacity or another for 30 years, starting as a medical student, and the first thing you realize about a Veteran when they come in is that they are hardwired for service, service to others. And if there’s a gene for service to others, we’ll find it in our Veterans,“ said Dr. Gaziano.
Someone as high profile as Secretary McDonald, who recently submitted his sample into the program, feels comfortable that his privacy will be protected. Donated samples are stored in the VA central research database without name, address, date of birth and or other identifying information. Rather, samples and data are labeled with a code. Researchers who are approved access to analyze the samples and data do not receive any personal identifiable information of participating Veterans.
“I’ve been through the entire operation, I’ve looked at the way we protect the data, we protect the biological specimens. I have no concerns about privacy or anything like that. I think we do a very strong job of doing that,” McDonald said.
Looking forward, McDonald is confident that VA will reach their goal of one million Veteran participants and he hopes that research will find better ways to provide treatment not only to Veterans, but patients all over the world.