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Army to Review Link Between Germ, Gulf War Syndrome

Health: Irvine researcher reports finding genetically altered bacterium in the blood of some veterans, suggesting possible exposure to biological warfare.

December 27, 1996|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — U.S. Army scientists will review an Irvine biochemist's research that suggests a link between a biological warfare agent and Gulf War syndrome, a spokesman for Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington said Thursday.

The research by Garth Nicolson, director of the nonprofit Institute for Molecular Medicine in Irvine, reportedly identifies a genetically altered bacterium in the blood of dozens of sick Gulf War veterans.

Nicolson suggests that the primitive bacterium, called mycoplasma, was deliberately altered for Iraqi use as a biological weapon.

On Monday, a group of 10 military and civilian medical experts met at the Walter Reed center to discuss Nicolson's research at the request of Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). The group, which included Pentagon experts, agreed to meet again in January to discuss details of how to investigate the research, including funding and testing issues, said Walter Reed spokesman Ben Smith.

But Smith downplayed the significance of the meetings, saying that the Army has only agreed to study the research as part of its ongoing investigation into the causes of Gulf War syndrome. The term refers to a puzzling array of ailments, including chronic fatigue, insomnia and neurological disorders afflicting thousands of veterans who served in the 1991 conflict with Iraq.

"We are willing to pursue all approaches to dealing with this problem," he said, emphasizing that Nicolson's research involves a very small sample of sick veterans. "What it boils down to is that the Army has simply agreed to look at [the research]."

The meeting Monday was called by Dicks, who read stories about Nicolson's research in a Seattle newspaper and called the biochemist to discuss his findings.

"I asked that all the top people in the government be brought to this meeting," Dicks said. "My view is the American people are very upset. They don't think enough research is being done."

Nicolson could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In September, the Pentagon admitted that 15,000 or more U.S. troops may have been exposed to nerve gas in Iraq.

Nicolson has studied Gulf War syndrome since his daughter came down with several of the ailments after her military service in Iraq, Dick said.

Nicolson told researchers at Monday's meeting that he has found a genetically altered version of mycoplasma in half of the several hundred sick veterans he has tested. Mycoplasma is a type of bacterium that can aggressively invade blood cells.

Some of the sick veterans have been successfully treated with antibiotics.

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