Chemicals used to protect soldiers in 1991 Gulf War can damage testes, animal studies show

DURHAM, N.C. -- A combination of chemicals given to protect Gulf War soldiers against deadly diseases and nerve gas may have inadvertently damaged their testes and sperm production, according to animal experiments at Duke University Medical Center.

The new study could explain why some veterans have experienced infertility, sexual dysfunction, and other genitourinary symptoms, said Mohamed Abou Donia, Ph.D., a Duke pharmacologist.

Three chemicals were given to soldiers to protect them against insect-borne diseases and nerve-gas poisoning: the insect repellent DEET, the insecticide permethrin, and the anti-nerve gas agent pyridostigmine bromide.

In a study designed to mimic those same conditions, Abou Donia and his colleagues gave rats equivalent doses to what the soldiers received. When given together, the chemicals caused extensive cell degeneration and cell death with various structures of the testes, he found. The damage was even more severe among rats that were exposed to moderately stressful situations in addition to the chemicals.

Results of the study, funded by the Department of Defense, are published in the Jan. 10, 2003 issue of The Journal ofToxicology and Environmental Health.

"It appears that moderate stress, combined with the three chemicals, caused the most severe deterioration in testicular structure and sperm production, and these conditions were likely experienced by some Gulf War soldiers in the combat environment," said Abou Donia, principal investigator of the study.

"Interestingly, the chemically-treated rats don't look or behave any differently than normal rats, just as the soldiers don't show any outward signs of disease," said Abou Donia. "But under a microscope, you can see clear and well-defined damage to a variety of testicular structures."

Abou Donia's team found the most pervasive cell damage within basal germ cells and spermatocytes, which give rise to mature sperm. The three che

Contact: Rebecca Levine
Duke University Medical Center

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