Chronic fatigue syndrome research at Stanford

There’s nothing easy about researching chronic fatigue syndrome. There’s no clear disease definition, no diagnostic test and not enough government funding to solve those first two problems. That’s why two studies led by Stanford researchers, funded mostly by private donations, are giving CFS patients hope.

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The Stanford ME/CFS Initiative, composed of investigators from multiple universities, is several years into a blood-biomarker analysis of 200 CFS patients and 400 age- and sex-matched healthy control subjects, under the guidance of Jose Montoya, MD, professor of medicine, and Mark Davis, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology. The team’s first published study identified 12 elevated cytokines, the infection-fighting proteins in blood, which could serve as potential markers of disease severity. Other research discovered structural brain abnormalities in the CFS patients, illuminating another diagnostic possibility. And now team members are analyzing study participants’ blood and gastrointestinal microbiome for bacteria, viruses and other factors that could trigger immunological disturbances.

The second is a “big data” study entailing a broader and deeper analysis of 20 severely ill CFS patients. Researchers led by Ron Davis, PhD, professor of biochemistry and of genetics, are collecting blood, urine, saliva, sweat and stool samples, as well as monitoring sleep, brain signals and cognitive performance. Relying on genomic analysis and an international team of experts, Davis aims to create a comprehensive picture of what is going on inside CFS patients. (See the main story for details.)

Good news for chronic fatigue syndrome researchers came in October 2015, when the National Institutes of Health announced an initiative to invigorate CFS research. The NIH launched an internal study to analyze CFS biomarkers and increased the annual research budget by $1 million, to $7 million in 2016. The Stanford researchers are hoping to tap this funding to continue studying CFS and ways to diagnose and treat it.

Kris Newby is the communications manager for Spectrum, the Stanford Center for Clinical and Translational Research and Education. Email her at krisn@stanford.edu.

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