Copyright 1997 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Special DNA process helped scientists find Gulf War bug

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Seattle, Washington; March 27, 1997
By Ed Offley, P-I Military Writer

The Army this month will take the first steps to study the research methods of two California Scientists who say they have found a cause for a large for a large number of Gulf War syndrome cases.

Garth and Nancy Nicolson for the past three years have used a gene tracking process to identify an invasive bacterial agent in the blood of many sick Gulf War veterans. Known as Mycoplasma fermentans, the bacterium eludes identification through other medical procedures, Garth Nicolson said.

After reading about the Nicolsons in the Post-Intelligencer in December, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash, pressed the Army to consult with the scientists on their procedure.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center then agreed to support a protocol study by government and independent researchers to verify the blood-analysis technique, said Walter Reed spokesman Ben Smith.

“The first thing is to determine if the Nicolsons’ approach achieves results we haven’t yet verified” in other medical procedures, Smith said.

An Army research contract will pay for about a half-dozen scientists to travel to the Nicolsons’ non-profit Institute for Molecular Medicine in Irvine, Calif. There they will receive instruction in the Nicolsons’ methodology for subsequent application at a number of independent research labs.

Nicolson named the University of Texas Medical School and Immunosciences Laboratories, Inc. of Beverly Hills, Calif., as the types of organizations he would like to see involved in the study.

If the procedure’s accuracy and effectiveness are confirmed, the next step will be for the Army to sponsor an epidemiologial study of Gulf War veterans, possibly as early as this summer, Garth Nicolson and Smith said.

The process devised by the Nicolsons involves examination of microscopic gene strands found in the center, or nuclei, of individual white blood cells. In their laboratory the Nicolsons isolate nucleoproteins from the nucleus of a cell, then examine the individual genes, which are tightly attached to the proteins.

“We are able to find the organization of genes in a way that you couldn’t detect if you merely isolated the bulk of DNA from the nucleus” of each cell, Garth Nicolson said, referring to the common procedure used to identify the genetic structure of cells through DNA molecules.

“In addition, critical nucleoproteins are often thrown out in the isolation procedures to obtain DNA.”

Analyzing blood samples of sick Gulf War veterans, the Nicolsons not only found Mycoplasma fermentans in nearly half the sick veterans they tested, but also discovered indications that it was genetically altered.

Garth Nicolson said he found in the blood samples a solitary gene found in the HIV-1 virus that is the precursor to AIDS.

“If there had been an infection by the HIV-1 virus, there would be several other genes present, but were not,” Nicolson said.

The solitary gene embedded in the Mycoplasma fermentans does not exist in nature, he said. “Although not conclusive, we have evidence for biological agent exposures.”

Because Mycoplasma fermentans –unlike other bacteria- does not have a cell wall and contains receptors for attachment to different cells, it is able to invade blood cells and tissue cells throughout the human body, Garth Nicolson said.

Most of the mycoplasma agent invades tissue rather than blood cells, requiring and extraordinary sensitive detection process to confirm its presence in blood samples.

“The good news is that this type of infection responds to certain antibiotics,” he said.

“Gulf War illness patients that test positive for Mycoplasma fermentans are slowly recovering from their illness after multiple cycles of antibiotic therapy.”