Agent Orange study gives impetus to another studies

Thousands of small white boxes full of samples of blood, serum and urine are all that remain of a 25-year,$143 million (107 million EUR) program to find out if the herbicide Agent Orange made Vietnam War veterans sick.

But while the Agent Orange study is over, government researchers say that collection of 86,000 biological samples and medical records is far too valuable to just be thrown away. They say it might be just the beginning of what could be learned from the Air Force's vast collection of biological samples and medical records.

Few other studies have followed such a large group of people over a such an extended period of time.

However, while Congress has ordered the Agent Orange records saved, it has not yet appropriated any new money to pay for storing and protecting the samples, which must be kept at ultra-low temperatures, and the vast paper records. Current funding runs out Sept. 30.

"From a practical point of view, that is the most detailed info on a cohort of this size," said Joel Michalek, who began work on the study in 1978 and later became the principal investigator. "There is an enormous amount of detail and completeness to that data set."

Without money to store the 86,000 samples, they will have to be destroyed, said David Butler, senior program officer for the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine.

"That's something we absolutely don't want to do," he said.

The Air Force began studying the effects of Agent Orange in 1979 after servicemembers complained of getting sick from the herbicide sprayed on the Vietnamese jungle to destroy foliage that provided cover along key roads and waterways.

Operation Ranch Hand sprayed at least 12 million gallons (45.42 million liters) of Agent Orange, giving the pilots and crew members some of the highest and most consistent exposure to the herbicide, nicknamed for the orange band on the barrels in which it was stored.

In all, nearly 2,800 men gave detailed information and biological samples for the study over 20 years. Full medical exams - including collection of blood, urine and semen samples - were conducted five times during the study, and most participants stuck with the study even though it required them and their families to give detailed information about their habits and medical conditions.

"The participation has been absolutely amazing, things other researchers might be envious of," said Julie Robinson, the transition manager overseeing the end of the study at Brooks City-Base, the technology and research complex formerly known as Brooks Air Force Base. "The data collected could keep researchers busy for many years."

The most notable finding in the initial study was that veterans who absorbed large amounts of the main toxin in Agent Orange may have a higher risk of developing diabetes.

The National Academy of Science has been charged with taking control of the samples and medical records.

The records have already been sent to be archived, but the frozen samples still need to be moved out of a bank of freezers at Brooks City-Base.

The academy wants the specimens sent to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

"We're planning on the assumption we will identify that source of funding" to preserve the samples and records, Butler said.

A bill to provide $1.45 million (1.1 million EUR) for the Agent Orange archive during each of the next four fiscal years was introduced in the Senate in May by Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, but the measure has not yet been given a hearing.

The project's researchers and a National Academy review panel agree that the samples and records could prove to be a rich mine for medical research.

While no one has proposed a specific study, Butler said it could be used to study effects of other common herbicides on people as well as studies on the aging process for men.

Michalek, now the vice chairman of epidemiology department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said the specimens could be used "in ways I can't even imagine. It's mindboggling what those specimens could be used for."

Michalek and others say they remain optimistic that the collection will not have to be destroyed for lack of funding.

"Somebody has to say 'This is important,' and it has to be funded," he said.