A little over 10 years ago, a small group of doctors and scientists from VA huddled around a conference room table in Rockville, Maryland. I was among these scientists and what we created – the Million Veteran Program – was groundbreaking.

A few years earlier, the human genome was decoded for the first time in history, which meant long-sought answers about our health were finally within reach – answers like why some people are more at risk for certain cancers, or why others are vulnerable to major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and why medications work for some people, but not others.

On that spring day in Rockville, we were determined to harness this new, evolving knowledge to give Veterans more accurate predictions of their health trajectories, diagnoses and treatments. We dreamed of individualized health care based on people’s genes, military exposures and medical history.

How big should this project be?

To do this, we would need DNA from a very large number of Veterans. Dr. Timothy O’Leary, who led this effort, kept asking, “How big should this project be?”

At the time, genetic studies typically had between 100 and 2,000 participants. This seems large, but not large enough to reach findings for whole populations of people. To make significant contributions to science and medicine, we needed to go big. But how big? One-hundred-thousand Veterans? More?

Over dinner that night, Dr. Mike Gaziano, Harvard professor and physician from VA Boston, wrote “The Million Veteran Program” on a napkin. The name stuck.

Drs. Suma Muralidhar and Mike Gaziano

The visionary group that launched MVP:

  • VHA Office of Research and Development
    • Timothy O’Leary
    • Ron Przygodzki
    • Suma Muralidhar
    • Grant Huang
    • Jenny Moser
    • Marilyn Mason
    • Kristina Hill
  • Boston VA
    • Mike Gaziano
    • Lou Fiore
    • Mary Brophy
  • West Haven VA
    • John Concato
  • Salt Lake City VA
    • Larry Meyer

One million Veterans to change the future of medicine

Over the course of two days, our team tossed around ideas that at first seemed impossible.

If one million Veterans would agree to share their DNA and health information, we could eventually understand nearly any kind of health condition affecting any Veteran. We could advance medicine in a way never done before and, ultimately, improve care for the men and women who served our country.

VA was ideally suited to build such a program.

We had one of the best electronic health records in the world, a national research program embedded into a health care system, world-class doctors and researchers, and, most of all, altruistic Veterans willing to participate in research.

Building MVP: Leaving no stone unturned

We all returned to our day jobs and began working on the complex task of designing and building MVP. We shared our vision with members of Congress, VA program offices, universities and Veterans Service Organizations. And we created an external advisory committee, made up of the nation’s leading geneticists and researchers, to help guide our work.

First Veteran enrolled

Then in 2011, we enrolled our first Veteran at the Boston VA Jamaica Plain Campus.

Every year since, we hit new milestones that left us humbled and amazed – 100,000 Veterans, 500,000 Veterans. Just a few months ago, we reached more than 850,000 Veterans enrolled, with new service members and Veterans enrolling every day.

PTSD genetic marker linked to Black Veterans

Every Veteran who joins our research makes a difference. Their blood samples and health data have led to new findings about conditions, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), heart disease, kidney disease, cancer and more.

Because of our research, we found a certain genetic marker linked to PTSD – a marker more commonly found in Black Veterans. That’s because over 150,000 Black Veterans are enrolled in our program, making medical findings like this possible about the Black Veteran community.

Such findings are the first of many steps in understanding the genetic contributions to disease that can eventually lead to finding new treatments or to early diagnosis.

What’s next for MVP

For me, the most humbling part of this journey has been meeting Veterans and hearing their stories. Veterans of all ages, backgrounds and creeds share with me the same message. They consider joining MVP as a second opportunity to serve their country and help their fellow service members and Veterans. I take this personally and pledge to every Veteran my full commitment to make their service in MVP count.

My hope is that over the next 10 years, doctors will have information not only about Veterans’ health and health history, but also their genetic profiles, lifestyle and military exposures. Providers will be able to tell patients what illnesses they are at risk for, and what drugs work best for them.

The Veteran standard of care will be revolutionary – tailored and custom fit for every patient. It will be the very best care in the world.

That is my dream.

How to enroll in VA’s Million Veteran Program

To learn more and enroll today, visit mvp.va.gov or call 866-441-6075. You do not need to be enrolled in VA health care to sign up.

By Sumitra (Suma) Muralidhar is director of the Million Veteran Program, Office of Research and Development

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Published on Oct. 29, 2021

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