Researchers at Stanford University and elsewhere say they have taken an important step to help people with a poorly understood condition that has long been viewed skeptically by the public and even some doctors. They claim to have created a blood test that is able to easily identify people with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME / CFS).
The diagnostic test not only confirms another biological basis for the symptoms of those affected, say the authors, but may indicate new treatment options for the often uncontrollable condition.
We currently refer to ME / CFS as a diagnostic label for people who experience prolonged debilitating fatigue ̵
A major stumbling block in understanding the disorder is the lack of biomarkers that physicians could use to identify patients – people with ME / CFS tend to have immune cells or other health features that are indistinguishable from the average person. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to two million people in the United States suffer from ME / CFS, but more than 90 percent are undiagnosed. Those who are diagnosed must undergo a strenuous, frustrating series of tests that rule out other diseases, and often have few or no options for treating their symptoms.
But the researchers behind this latest study, which was published in the Proceedings on Monday, tell the National Academy of Sciences that they have developed a test that can distinguish ME / CFS patients from the general population, at least in a small sample of people ,
Their test is a "nanoelectronics blood-based" assay that measures how a person's immune cells and blood plasma affect an electrical current, and uses these results as a proxy for the overall health of the cells (the greater the change in current, in the Essentially the less healthy the cells are). In this case, they hoped to see how these cells respond to stress, and therefore expose them to salt, as they are forced to compensate for osmosis or water from inside the cell. Then they let the cells run through the stream.
In their pilot study, they tested blood samples from 40 people. Half were diagnosed with ME / CFS, the other half were healthy volunteers. And for all samples from ME / CFS patients, they were able to detect relatively large current changes compared to healthy subjects.
"We do not know exactly why cells and plasma behave like this or whatever they do," senior author Ron Davis, a biochemist and geneticist at Stanford University, said in a statement. "However, there is scientific evidence that this disease is not a falsification of a patient's mind. We clearly see a difference in the way in which immune cells of the healthy and chronic fatigue syndrome process stress.
The team's test could theoretically not only be used to diagnose ME / CFS in humans, but also track the effectiveness of potential future treatments if they can normalize the stress response of the cells. Many of these treatments are already being researched for ME / CFS, but the team also found a drug that appears to help ME / CFS cells respond better to stress but is currently untested. The tiny components used to make the tests are also relatively inexpensive, so they can one day be mass-produced and made available to doctors and patients.
However, there is still a long way to go until the test is a slam dunk, leaving many questions unanswered. Researchers elsewhere have tried early to find potential biomarkers for ME / CFS, but these biomarkers are unlikely to help doctors diagnose any case. This is not entirely surprising as there are no single causes or mechanisms that explain the symptoms of each individual (possible factors include viral infections, genetics and thyroid problems). While the team's test may have identified all individuals with ME / CFS in their sample, this does not mean that this will be the case if they begin to study larger groups of people.
For those with ME / CFS (including Davis) & # 39; 's own son, whose diagnosis inspired him to study the disease), these incremental advances are worth gold.