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Gene Trait Could Cause Gulf War Syndrome - Study

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A genetic trait that gives some people a boost in fighting off toxins could help explain cases of Gulf War syndrome, researchers said Wednesday.

The gene could explain why some soldiers were afflicted with the syndrome -- which has a wide range of symptoms from flu to chronic fatigue to asthma -- the team at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas said.

Many experts have concluded that Gulf War syndrome does not exist but researchers remain intrigued by it. Thousands of British and U.S. veterans complain they have it and criticize their governments for doing nothing about it.

``One of the biggest questions about Gulf War syndrome has been why one person got sick when the person next to him didn't,'' said Dr. Robert Haley, chief of epidemiology at the school, who led the study.

``That is one of the major puzzles that made many people think the symptoms were just due to stress,'' Haley, whose research is funded in part by the Department of Defense, added in a statement.

``But now we know that there appears to be a genetic reason why some people got sick and others didn't, and this genetic difference links the illness to damage from certain chemicals.''

Writing in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, Haley's team said a gene that controls production of an enzyme known as type Q paraoxonase, or PON-Q, which helps the body destroy toxins, might be responsible.

It is highly specific for the chemical nerve agents sarin and soman as well as for the common pesticide diazinon.

``In our earlier studies when we found strong statistical links between Gulf War syndrome and veterans' reports of exposure to combinations of chemicals like pesticides and low-level chemical nerve agents, we predicted it might be due to a PON-Q deficiency, and now that's what we have found,'' Haley said.

``The sick veterans in our study have low PON-Q levels in their blood, and the well ones have high PON-Q levels.''

Haley's group had linked three different neurological syndromes to the use of pesticide-containing flea collars, highly concentrated insect repellent and pills formulated with pyridostigmime bromide to counteract the effects of nerve gas, as well as exposure to low-level chemical nerve agents.

They now plan to test a random sample of veterans from the 1991 conflict, in which Iraqi troops were ousted from Kuwait, to see if their theory holds true.

Gulf War Vets Home Page.