This year, National VA Research Week, May 11–15, focuses on “Empowering Veterans Through Research.” Since 1925, VA researchers have been discovering new ways to treat disease and improve Veterans’ health. VA has a proud history of conducting high-quality clinical trials that benefit the nation. That mission is especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
VA continues to be at the forefront of research targeted to Veterans. In fact, many VA investigators are Veterans themselves.
Dr. Gary Gilkeson, an Air Force Veteran, is a physician in the rheumatology division at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. He focuses his research on the causes of and treatments for the disease lupus. It is a long-term disorder in which the body’s immune system become hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. Symptoms include inflammation, swelling, and damage to the joints, skin, kidneys, blood, heart, and lungs.
He previously served as the chief of rheumatology at the Charleston VA and at the VA hospital in Durham, North Carolina. He has authored more than 250 peer-reviewed papers and is also an associate dean at the Medical University of South Carolina. In the 1980s, he served as a medical officer at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas for four years and in the Air Force Reserve for two years.
Dr. Gilkeson spoke with VA Research:
What motivated you to join the military?
I joined the military because of the physician education program, which provided me the funds to go to medical school. I enjoyed the opportunity to pursue my career while serving my country.
What inspired your research career?
I completed some research papers while I was a student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and began doing research again when I was a rheumatology-immunology fellow at Duke University in North Carolina. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of research, the potential to improve the lives of people with lupus, and the opportunity to continue to see patients while doing research.
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
One of the mentors who inspired me in my research career was Dr. Jim Willerson, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Another professor, Dr. David Pisetsky, inspired me during my fellowship at Duke University. Many other colleagues and mentees were also very important in my research career. In the military, my colleagues at Carswell Air Force Base inspired me, including Dr. Tim Carlos, Dr. Jose Guttierez-Nunes, and Dr. David Wilkes, among others. A colonel, Dr. Dale Cloyd, was a great medicine chief at Carswell and exemplified what it took to be a be a soldier and a doctor. He mentored us in how to achieve that balance.
When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.
I served four years at Carswell Air Force Base as a general internist (1982 to 1986). It was a teaching hospital with a physician assistant program and a family medicine residency. Doing internal medicine clinics, attending on the in-patient wards, and teaching the residents and physician assistant students was a challenging and gratifying position. I also temporarily served four- to six-week stints as a relief physician at March Air Force Base in California, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and Loring Air Force Base in Maine. During my time at Carswell, I became attracted to rheumatology as a specialty due to the patients I saw there. I strongly believe that the military training I received was key to me developing a leadership style and an understanding of how to work with people.
What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?
My whole research career has been focused on trying to find the cause of and treatments for the disease lupus. I’ve been concentrating, for example, on the reason women are nine times more likely than men to contract the disease. My colleagues and I investigate the differences between men and women with the immune system, which impacts disease areas including responses to vaccines and infections. We are also pursuing research in using mesenchymal stromal cells—from which bone, cartilage, and fat are derived—for treating refractory lupus, a failure to obtain clinical remission after immunosuppressive therapy. If successful, these cells will provide a new therapeutic option for autoimmune diseases. We are expanding to other disease areas. There are rising numbers of women and minorities in the armed forces, leading to increases in patients with lupus and other autoimmune diseases in our clinic at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.
To read the full interview with Dr. Gilkeson, visit https://www.research.va.gov/researchers_whoserved/gary_gilkeson.cfm.
To learn more about VA research, visit research.va.gov.