Yang Chen, with the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center at the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System, was first author on a study that found mitochondrial DNA damage in Veterans with Gulf War illness. Photo: Mitch Mirkin

Gulf War Syndrome is one of the medical mysteries of our time. Thousands of veterans of the 1990-1991 conflict have debilitating fatigue, insomnia, cognitive problems, and headaches – but there’s never been a definitive explanation, diagnostic – or treatment.

But the damage has now been identified in the DNA of affected veterans – potentially leading to cures, reports a team of scientists from Rutgers Medical School and the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System in the online journal PLoSONE.

The deepest dive into the mitochondrial DNA may help explain how elusive the symptoms are, they write.

“Mitochondrial dysfunction among veterans with (Gulf War Illness) may help explain, in part, the persistence of this illness for over 25 years,” they write. “Chemical and environmental exposures during deployment may have provided the initial insult to mtDNA and accumulation of damage.

“Damaged mtDNA may subsequently impact the efficiency of electron transport chain complexes and activity, resulting in enhanced reactive oxygen species and further damage of mtDNA,” they write.

The team noted that symptoms of the affliction appeared to resemble mitochondrial disorders, so they hypothesized they could find its root causes there (no standard laboratory or medical diagnostics current exist).

Twenty-one sufferers of GWI and seven controls were assessed for damage and erroneous copies using a QPCR-based assay. Damage was expected to inhibit or stop outright the polymerase progressions, and produce less PCR product.

In the mitochondrial DNA, they found more lesions and more extra copies of genes in the GWI sufferers. (They also found similar errors and damage in the nuclear DNA – though not to a statistically-significant level).

The damage to the mitochondria, which are the energy powerhouses of the cells, could explain the fatigue in the sufferers, they add.

A previous Department of Defense-funded study in 2014 found the first direct evidence of mitochondrial damage in GWI, they add. But the Rutgers/VA work expanded the number of veterans whose DNA was scrutinized.

The VA has recently launched a trial to treat GWI-suffering veterans with ubiquinol, a coenzyme Q 10, to see if symptoms improve. Some 200 veterans are being recruited for that double-blind placebo study.

The genesis of the Gulf War affliction continues to be a mystery. This summer a Drexel University team identified a potential cause: that organophosphate nerve agents like sarin and cyclosarin were released into the environment when Coalition forces blew up an Iraqi ammunition depot during the fighting. The Drexel team also proposed a potential enzyme inhibitor as treatment. A collaboration between Drexel and Boston University, and funded by the DOD, involves creating a human stem cell repository for GWI sufferers.

An estimated 250,000 troops have suffered from GWI, according to some estimates.