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VA Research: Interview With Dr. Timothy O’Leary

Chief Research and Development Officer, Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Timothy O’Leary, M.D., Ph.D., the Chief Research and Development Officer (CRADO) for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), oversees a research program conducted at more than 100 VA medical centers around the nation that addresses a full range of health concerns affecting America’s veterans. The research program dates to 1925 and includes biomedical, clinical, rehabilitation, and health services research. Its investigators have earned three Nobel prizes, seven Lasker Awards, and numerous other national and international honors.

O’Leary’s career began during his undergraduate studies at Purdue University, where he majored in chemistry. He went on to earn a doctorate in physical chemistry from Stanford University and a medical degree from the University of Michigan. He conducted research for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration before joining the faculty at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), where he chaired the Department of Cellular Pathology for more than 15 years.

O’Leary joined the VA in 2004, initially as director of Biomedical Laboratory Research and Development (BLR&D), then director of BLR&D and Clinical Services Research and Development (CSR&D). In June 2014, he was named CRADO for VHA. His research interests include genomics, proteomics, and ultrasensitive detection of biological toxins. He has served on numerous federal panels and advisory committees, including the Health and Human Services Clinical Laboratory Improvement Advisory Committee and the Food and Drug Administration Hematology and Devices Panel. He is a past president of the Association for Molecular Pathology, and serves as editor-in-chief for its Journal of Molecular Diagnostics.

For 31 years, while he lived and worked in the Washington, D.C., area, O’Leary served as a reserve member of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, serving two tours on active duty. “My father was a career Army and Air Force officer from 1946-68,” said O’Leary, “and his father served in the Army during World War I, so I grew up military. The soldiers, sailors, and airmen I served with at AFIP represented the finest that the United States people have to offer, so continuing to focus on this population is as natural as eating or sleeping.”


Craig Collins: You joined the VA in 2004, not long after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom – and it’s been a decade of enormous changes for the VA and its research program. Could you describe some of those changes?

Dr. Timothy O’Leary: I think that’s true. First of all, there’s an awful lot that remains to be done. There’s a lot we don’t know. For example, we can help people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and TBI [traumatic brain injury], but we’re a long way from a cure. I’d like to think of our research as having the objective of amending the words of Abraham Lincoln that are inscribed on a plaque at our VA headquarters: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and for his orphan.” Our real objective is to cure those who have borne the battle. And we’re not there yet.

MVP is an attempt to bring a more massive collaboration together that enables us to achieve economies of scale, while still harnessing the phenomenal intellects and skill sets of VA researchers around the country.

First and foremost – because we’re a small program, and because research is expensive – it was important that we develop strong relationships with other federal research organizations, and particularly the Department of Defense [DOD] Health Program. We see the same people at different points in their lives – they get them first; we get them afterward, but sometimes they go back on active duty after we’ve seen them – so we’ve tried to coordinate our programs more effectively. Terry Rauch, the director of the Defense Medical Research and Development Program, invited me to participate in reviews of their program. And one of us or another – I’m not sure who gets the credit or the blame – suggested that we really ought to make these joint program reviews. So we rapidly changed to where we reviewed the Defense Health research and VA research together, so that we know we’re covering ground more effectively together.

VA Research cooperation

Army Col. Dallas Hack, director of the U.S. Army’s Combat Casualty Care Research Program, right, and Terry Rauch, Ph.D., director of the Defense Medical Research and Development Program,, left, discuss veterans’ mental health and traumatic brain injury research and care issues during the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Aug. 14, 2013. VA research has developed strong relationships with other federal research organizations. U.S. Army photo by Melissa Miller

We already had some level of involvement with the National Institutes of Mental Health, in particular the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, in their program reviews. But as a result of the executive order that President [Barack] Obama signed about a year ago on psychological health and traumatic brain injury, they became full partners. So now all four research programs – or all three, if you think of NIH as one organization – are reviewed and coordinated together, to assure that we maximize the impact of federal law and spending to benefit those people who put on a uniform to defend their country. So that’s one of the huge changes, I think.

We also adopted the use of NIH’s Electronic Research Administration system, eRA, to assist in program review. In the course of doing that, we’ve gained access to full information about those things NIH is funding, and they’ve got full information about what we’re funding. We can access not only their knowledge, but their ability to coordinate research from a management perspective. So that collaboration is another huge change.

We’ve also engaged in two programs aimed in part at changing the way research is done. One is the Million Veteran Program [MVP], which was a change for VA towards doing Big Science. For the most part, with the exception of a few large clinical trials that we run every year, most of the research done in VA was done, and is done, in individual research laboratories scattered around the country but not tightly coordinated with each other. MVP is an attempt to bring a more massive collaboration together that enables us to achieve economies of scale, while still harnessing the phenomenal intellects and skill sets of VA researchers around the country.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...