Reprogramming cells from Gulf War veterans into neurons to study Gulf War illness
Gulf War illness (GWI), which afflicts at least 25% of veterans who served in the 1990–1991 war in the Persian Gulf, is thought to be caused by deployment exposures to various neurotoxicants, including pesticides, anti–nerve gas pills, and low-level nerve agents including sarin/cyclosarin. GWI is a multisymptom disorder characterized by fatigue, joint pain, cognitive problems, and gastrointestinal complaints. The most prominent symptoms of GWI (memory problems, poor attention/concentration, chronic headaches, mood alterations, and impaired sleep) suggest that the disease primarily affects the CNS. Development of urgently needed treatments depends on experimental models appropriate for testing mechanistic hypotheses and for screening therapeutic compounds. Rodent models have been useful thus far, but are limited by their inability to assess the contribution of genetic or epigenetic background to the disease, and because disease-vulnerable proteins and pathways may be different in humans relative to rodents. As of yet, no postmortem tissue from the veterans has become available for research. We are moving forward with a paradigm shift in the study of GWI, which utilizes contemporary stem cell technology to convert somatic cells from Gulf War veterans into pluripotent cell lines that can be differentiated into various cell types, including neurons, glia, muscle, or other relevant cell types. Such cell lines are immortal and will be a resource for GWI researchers to pursue mechanistic hypotheses and therapeutics.