A moment that sums it up: 3:46 p.m.
The millionth veterinarian joined the database on the afternoon of November 11. Employees who had waited twelve years for this moment cried.
As the goal approached, the department began an intensive email campaign, encouraging veterinarians to register online or at VA medical centers. In the few weeks leading up to the millionth vet, what had been a few hundred sign-ups a day turned into thousands. The department created a ticker, which it posted online, showing the numbers.
“This is a gift to the world,” said Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The VA will continue to enroll more veterinarians in the database, but this was a symbolic moment.
Why it’s important: A diverse database provides information on diseases.
For years, researchers have been creating large databases for genetic research. Using them they have found, for example, genes that seem to confer resistance to dementia and others that probably contribute to obesity. The discoveries provide avenues to understand these diseases and develop treatments.
There are other large genetic databases, but they have mostly been created in Europe and include few minorities. The VA says its database offers a more diverse population: 175,000 people of African descent and 80,000 Hispanics joined the Million Veterans Program. The database also includes 100,000 women.
“It’s a huge investment and a scientific opportunity,” said Dr. Amit V. Khera, a genetics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is not a VA researcher, but has used the data through collaborations with researchers affiliated with the department.
As the database acquired participants, about 600 VA researchers registered to use it. The result so far has been more than 350 articles on diseases and disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, high blood pressure and non-alcoholic liver disease.
For example, said Dr. Sumitra Muralidhar, director of the Million Veterans Program, researchers found Genes related to flashbacks of traumatic events., a characteristic of post-traumatic stress. Now, Dr. Muralidhar said, researchers can study those genes and the role they play, which may help develop treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The department also says it is taking patient privacy into account. Although researchers can examine genetic and other data and links to medical records, fewer than 10 people at the VA have the links linking records to individuals. Those records, Dr. Muralidhar said, are kept in a facility in Boston that is “heavily secured.”
What it looks like: Veterans hope the database will help.
In 2019, a nurse at a VA hospital told Octavia Harris, 60, of San Antonio, about the Million Veterans Program. She signed up and said participating was an opportunity to help other veterinarians and help herself.
Harris, who retired from the Navy in 2012 after 30 years of service, said three conditions run in his family: diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis. She hopes that with her genetic and health information added to that of so many others, researchers will make useful discoveries.
In his family, Harris said, people died young.
“We haven’t lived past 70,” he said. “I want to be over 70.”