Million Vet Program nears millionth enrollment, eyes continued growth

by Tommy Grant

After 12 years of work, the Million Veteran Program is about to live up to its name.

Veterans Affairs officials expect the initiative to enroll its one millionth veteran sometime in the next few weeks. But program leaders say that milestone won’t mark an end to their work. Instead, they’ll shift to more targeted efforts in order to fill in gaps in the massive database of medical information they have collected.

“From the beginning, the goal was really to understand how genetics, lifestyle, military experiences and exposures impact health and well being,” Dr. Sumitra Muralidhar, director of the program, told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

“Right now we have over 100 projects doing work with this data set. We’ve had over 350 publications so far. … So, our goal is, after we get to one million, we will start diversifying the cohort more and have focused campaigns to recruit more of the underrepresented populations in this program.”

The Million Veteran Program was launched in 2011 as a way to facilitate research into a host of healthcare topics, potentially benefiting both veterans and the general public.

Veterans who participate in the program are asked to complete a 30-minute health survey and donate a blood sample for genetic analysis. Researchers can compare those findings to the veterans’ other medical conditions and general health.

Muralidhar said recent studies emerging from the data have focused on better predicting the risk of breast cancer in women veterans and prostate cancer in Black veterans. To expand that work in the future, however, administrators will have to add more women and minorities to the large genetic databank.

About 10 percent of the veterans samples thus far have come from women. Muralidhar said that’s a solid starting point for future research into women’s health issues, but increasing the total will enable broader study.

Asian Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders are also underrepresented in the program totals. Still, Muralidhar is generally pleased with the diversity of the database.

“The ultimate goal is to take these research findings and bring them back into the healthcare system,” she said. “And now we’re starting to see some initial projects that are bearing fruit in terms of clinical translation.”

Future projects could provide indicators for suicidal tendencies or mental health issues among veterans, markers and treatment for military toxic exposure problems, or similar medical breakthroughs.

But clinical trials on that work will take time, officials warned. That drew frustration from some members of the committee, who noted the need for answers on pressing veterans medical issues as soon as possible.

“I’d like to know in a month, three months, five months, what you’re finding and how to actualize it in treatment,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “If you’re talking about years away, I think that’s good if your only objective is research. But we want practical solutions now.”

Muralidhar said administrators are working to provide those insights as soon as possible, but still in a scientific, responsible manner.

More information on the program and how to enroll is available on the VA website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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